By David Griffin
Memory consolidation is a complex process. It is thought to involve the transfer of relatively fragile short-term memories into more permanent long-term ones (de Quervain et al., 2009). Physical activity has been demonstrated to affect this process (Nanda et al., 2013). This may be unsurprising, given the range of bodily and cognitive processes affected by physical activity. These include psychosocial, behavioural and neurobiological processes which directly affect and determine our overall feeling of well-being. In conjunction with physical activity, mental arousal and mood have also been demonstrated to affect our learning (Storbeck & Clore, 2008). It is this combination of physical activity, arousal and mood which large-scale business and motivational seminars, such as Tony Robbins’ ‘Unleash the Power Within’, exploit to enable the captivation of large audiences for hours on end.
With this in mind, researchers in the United States sought to determine how learning may be enhanced by physical activity in combination with positive mood and mental arousal (Wilson et al., 2021). They hoped to bring the benefits of immersive seminars to the lecture theatre. To do this, they enrolled 26 healthy adult volunteers and randomly divided them into two groups. These groups were the Immersive Seminar (IMS) group and the Control (CON) group. The same learning materials were covered by both groups over two days. The means of lecture delivery, however, differed considerably.
The IMS group received a hard copy of lecture material which was then presented to them in the form of an inspirational seminar. Approximately once per hour during each day, this group was conducted in a series of physical activities, comprising of fist-pumping, jumping, shouting and high-fiving behaviour. At the end of each learning day, the IMS group also partook in mindfulness meditation. The CON group also received a hard copy of the lecture material. However, in contrast to their IMS counterparts, they received tuition through a more conventional lecture delivered using a PowerPoint presentation.
During the tuition days, all participants wore a bio-harness which recorded a range of physiological variables. Saliva was also collected from participants at various stages throughout the study, enabling chemical indicators of focus, mood, energy and well-being to be recorded.
Participants were asked to complete an exam on the material before tuition commenced (‘pre-lecture exam’) and another exam two and 30 days after the concluding lecture (‘post-lecture exam’ and ‘post-30day-exam’, respectively). They were also asked to answer a range of subjective questions relating to their mood, energy-levels and personal well-being.
This study sought to test two hypotheses. The first was that the IMS group would demonstrate enhanced learning compared with the CON group. The second was that the IMS group would record greater levels of well-being, positive-mood and energy, corroborated by their recorded physiological and chemical indicators.
The findings from this work may be summarised as follows:
As might be expected, both the IMS group and CON group showed significant improvement in exam scores when their pre-lecture exam grades were compared with their post-lecture exam grades.
However, the IMS group significantly outperformed the CON group in the post-30day-exam, suggesting that the immersive seminar experience improves long-term learning.
Physiologically, participants in the IMS group demonstrated greater total expenditure of energy when compared with the CON group. This was in tangent with increased levels of salivary cortisol, a hormone known to play an important role in the consolidation of long-term memories.
The IMS group displayed increased subjective perceptions of mood, well-being, energy and focus levels after taking part in the seminar. These were also significantly higher than those of the CON group. These subjective feelings are thought to be considerable factors in fuelling an individual’s motivation; as such it may improve their ability to learn and retain information.
There are several important conclusions to be drawn from this study. Firstly, the efficacy of the traditional lecture format was demonstrated. However, its efficacy was overshadowed by that of a more motivating, exciting, and mentally and physically arousing seminar. This would suggest that simple changes to the delivery of course content can have dramatic and statistically significant implications for student attainment.
Secondly, it is widely accepted that physiological and chemical processes in the body play a dramatic role in our ability to learn. Levels of the hormone cortisol, associated with memory formation and consolidation, can be increased through physical exercise and mental arousal. By adding simple exercises in the lecture hall in combination with mindful meditation, the authors demonstrated a significant benefit to their students’ academic attainment.
Finally, students experiencing the immersive seminar in this study had a greater sense of well-being than those attending the traditional lecture. A positive sense of well-being has been associated with one’s ability to learn, suggesting that this factor should be a focus of educators. Furthermore, universities have a responsibility to their students as individuals and should consider their well-being just as they do their academic achievements.
de Quervain, D.J.F., Aerni, A., Schelling, G., Roozendaal, B., Glucocorticoids and the regulation of memory in health and disease, Front. Neuroendocrinol 30 (3) (2009) 358–370.
Nanda, B., Balde, J., Manjunatha, S., The acute effects of a single bout of moderate intensity aerobic exercise on cognitive functions in healthy adult males, J. Clin. Diagn. Res. 7 (9) (2013) 1883–1885.
Storbeck, J., & Clore, G.L., Affective arousal as information: how affective arousal influences judgments, learning, and memory. Soc. Personal. Psychol. Compass., 2(5), (2008) 1824-1843.
Wilson, J.M., Gheith, R.H., Lowery, R.P., Reber, D.D., Stefan, M.W., Koche, L.S., Non-traditional immersive seminar enhances learning by promoting greater physiological and psychological engagement compared to a traditional lecture format. Physiol. Behav., 238 (2021).