How We Learn Best: Improve Your Dive Learning Experience

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Ever wondered how we learn and how we retain what we learned? Have you noticed that you will retain less than 100% of the material presented? Furthermore, because you zone out, get distracted, or do not comprehend, you are not even cognizant of the things you see and hear during the class.

Every time a new concept or task is introduced, you may not fully understand it. You may intrinsically understand the concept, but not to a degree that would allow you to explain it to someone else. Moreover, the more time passes between a newly learned activity or concept and inactivity, the more “fuzzy” impressions get.

By better understanding how people learn, we can recognize how newly made mental connections fade or why the information presented never reach us in the first place. Likewise, instructors can use various techniques to improve their student’s learning success. Learning is a two-way process.

This overview on the physiology and psychology of learning was compiled for you to understand why you will not learn everything the first time you take a class. Some of these concepts have been applied specifically to how they relate to dive training. And lastly, techniques to improve retention are given at the end.

Your instructors at Add Helium would like to hear from you. Tell them what your personal experience has been, i.e. what worked best or not at all during your dive education. Have you figured out what techniques provided the best results for you? When do you think you have mastered a concept/activity.


Paying Attention

Not learning well initially may be due to Interference. This could be due to distractions, concentrating on something else, or even one’s emotional state. “Overcrowding” our mental ability to receive new information occurs with “cramming” for an exam or sitting through a lecture for hours. Intellectual interference or mental overcrowding can be minimized if we reflect on our reading and on our experiences to understand, clarify, associate, synthesize and organize them. Sitting in a noisy classroom with our cell phones going off or receiving text messages are all distractors. Being tired or drowsy after lunch also prevent us from paying attention. Having an instructor read off slides and drone on and on about a subject without engaging the students will lead to a loss of attention.

Students: Turn off any distractors. If possible, come well rested to class. Ask questions. By processing the information presented, you are paying attention and you will have improved retention.

Instructors: Engage with your class! Ask them questions and have the students restate a newly learned concept. This will also help you assess how well the information was received. Provide adequate but short breaks. Letting your students get up and stretch their legs will improve attention and “making room” for new information.


A 2001 document by Dartmouth College titled Memory is Learning that Persists states that one of the reasons we forget is disuse. Granted, we may not have learned the material well initially, but not using learned information or skills lets memories fade rapidly. According to this paper, we forget almost immediately after we learn – within the first 24 hours. Motor learning seems to be retained better than verbal learning, because a motor act has to be completed to be done at all. It requires a higher degree of organization and competency which involves over-learning. But “forgotten” material can be relearned in less time than is required for the original learning, even after many years of disuse.

Students: One way to improve retention is to engage with the material rather than memorizing and reciting it. I.e. discussing it amongst other students in your class or asking questions to your instructor. A question about a previously presented topic may arise a few days later. Don’t shy away from getting your answer. It will help with imprinting this new information in your memory pathways. If you have taken notes during the class, review them at the end of the day. In order to successfully complete an assignment, you have to both understand the how and why. Only then, can you apply it to the task at hand.

Instructors: Because motor learning is better retained than verbal learning, try to maximize your teaching by engaging motor learning. I.e. you can teach the CCR electronics via slide presentation only. Or, you can let the students use their computers while you lecture. Ideally, you can find other occasions to practice and review the electronics such as during the build section of the class.


Learning Styles

John and Sumita Kaufhold in their book titled The Psychology of Learning and the Art of Teaching introduce different student learning styles. We may all have heard that some people are more visual vs. auditory learners or vice versa. Actually there are many more different learning styles such as analytical, tactile, global, competitive, collaborative, etc. Rather than placing students in rigid categories, it appears that we learn in multiple ways and it is thus best to present and allow students to interact with information in multiple ways. So you may hear your instructor explaining a slide (see) about a rebreather part that you later engage with (tactile) during the build-part of the class.

Having other students in the class can be useful. Nobody is perfect! Seeing one student performing a skill less optimally helps identify how to do it better. Observing one person struggling with a concept and having the instructor assist, aids others in:

1. Identifying that he/she did not understand it too well, either and

2. If understood, may get a different perspective that deepens the knowledge.

Indirectly, our fellow students may be teaching us, too. When in doubt, make sure to address questions with your instructor for accuracy.


Being Honest with Yourself

Sometimes it is difficult for students to recognize the limits of their current skill, knowledge, and perspective; thus the saying: ”You don’t know what you don’t know.” The classroom should invite students to ask questions and to present alternate viewpoints fostering open communication.

Learning involves a process of personal transformation that requires reflection as in self-monitoring and the capacity for self-direction. An instructor’s task is to guide, motivate and assist students through this maturation process. As a student, one may have to alter earlier ways of thinking and task execution. Rather than thinking of learning as simply the acquisition and application of knowledge, we should adapt conceptual learning that requires one to construct a conceptual framework which allows one to integrate and organize new knowledge into a coherent structure. This requires students to be skeptical about what they “know” and be capable of challenging existing assumptions and paradigms. Deep learning entails examining facts and ideas critically, relating new and older knowledge, linking ideas together, and constructing novel conceptual structures. It involves the ability to synthesize isolated, unlinked facts into larger conceptual structures See footnote 1.

Students: Don’t accept everything at ‘face value’! Even instructors make mistakes or are simply wrong. If something strikes you odd, question it. By being critical, you are processing information. If your instructor’s response if not satisfying you, research it on your own! Other times, new information presented may be contrary to what you think you already know. It is quite possible that you are still operating on ‘outdated’ information or may be under the incorrect conception of what you have obtained in another class.

Instructors: Information constantly changes. To be an effective instructor, you too must analyze the information you want to present to your students. And you too, must keep yourself updated via a continuous education process. Be prepared to answer challenging questions. Not knowing the answer just has identified a knowledge gap in you. Most importantly, be honest. If you don’t know the answer, say so rather than inventing one. Perhaps you and the students can find the answer together fostering an honest learning environment.


Physical Changes in the Brain

A 2012 article by Kenneth Wesson in Brain World Magazine, asserts that physical changes occur both within the brain circuitry and in its structure-function correlations.

“Memory is quite fluid, and, over time, the brain continues to revisit and reorganize stored information with each subsequent experience in a cyclical fashion, reprogramming its contents through a repetitive updating procedure known as brain plasticity. This is advantageous, since improvements are made repeatedly to existing data. Prior knowledge is revised based on new input, resulting in a more accurate representation of the current world, increasing one’s probability of thriving. The flip side of these constant memory revisions is that eyewitness accounts often become less reliable with the passage of time.”

To demonstrate, see how we learn a new song (see footnote 3):

1. When first exposed to a new song, we establish new neural connections:
of the sounds, the emotional pleasure, where we heard this new song, the lyrics, the title, the artist, similar songs, etc.

2. However, upon hearing the same song on a second occasion, it is processed as a neurologically different experience, where established connections are re-activated as recognition. We now remember and recall the song, sing along with now recognizable lyrics (impossible during the initial exposure) and

3. Later, reproduce the lyrics in the absence of any song being played.

All new learning pathways are built from existing circuits and are accompanied by changes in brain physiology as a result of experience.

Surely advanced divers and especially, instructors can relate to this when looking back to how they started. Remember your first CCR class? How much better do you understand the concepts presented now vs. then? As an instructor, rather than instinctually understanding material or recognizing concepts, you are now able to explain it to someone who is not familiar with it. You have the ability to break the concept down into its components, correlate it to something the student is familiar with, and overall be able to present it so that a novice “gets it”. Our memory and recall ability is much better of things we are teaching to others.


Memory Storage: The Rational vs. Emotional Brain

The article (footnote 3) further points out that while memory cannot occur without learning, our memory may allow new material learned to decay. While we regard our brain as being rational only with respect to learning, emotions play a big role and can be stimulating or impeding our ability to learn. Our brain is really more of an emotional brain that gives priority to feelings. Being upset or otherwise distressed will be impeding our ability to pick up information or being able to recall it. Likewise, the mere exposure to information does not guarantee that it will be deemed important by the student. Without “personal importance” to the student, encoding the information for permanent memory storage may not occur.

According to Donald Hebb, father of cognitive neuroscience: ” If connections are not strengthened by active usage, they soon disintegrate. The more frequently a given network of neurons fires together, the greater is the likelihood that they will hardwire together permanently, increasing the likelihood that they will fire in unison in the future. But it can take as many as six exposures before new information enters into permanent memory.”

Important distinctions must be made in memory formation between what one

  • understands versus remembers;
  • recognizes versus recalls;
  • remembers versus can reproduce;
  • remembers versus knows how to apply.

Whether you are a teacher or a student, there are numerous means by which memory can be enhanced. Hands-on, active learning is concisely captured in the following Chinese proverb:

I hear and I forget.

I read and I remember.

I do and I understand.

Most of us would agree that CCR students naturally are quite motivated. Why else spend the money, take the time off work, travel, etc. CCR students are emotionally motivated learners because they like to learn more about what they like to engage in. One of the best things to do after having taken a class is to reinforce what was learned by applying it. We remember a lot of what we personally experience. So go diving. The next step is to continue with your diver education. Either, revisit the same class you have already taken because hearing and seeing the information again will deepen your understanding. Or, take the next advanced class.

By the way, the policy at Add Helium has always been to allow their students to revisit the class he/she has already taken for free. Guaranteed, hearing some of the same information once again will appear as “new” information, although it was covered in the initial class – you simply have not absorbed it during the first presentation.

So let’s hear it from you. As said in the beginning, tell Add Helium what works and what does not. Share your learning journey with your instructors.



This article could not have been written without the following:

Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Do Students Remember What They Learn in School? Daniel T. Willingham


Psychology of Learning and the Art of Teaching, John & Sumita Kaufhold, 2002 Writers Club Press


Brain World Magazine: Learning and Memory: How do we remember an why do we often forget. Kenneth Wesson


Memory is learning that Persists, Academic Skills Center, Dartmouth College 2001


Footnote1: This excerpt was taken from Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Science Center “The Psychology of Learning and the Art of Teaching”. Previously available online. No author mentioned. I have a copy saved if anyone is interested reading the article in its entirety.


Footnote2: Memory is learning that Persists, Academic Skills Center, Dartmouth College 2001


Footnote3: Brain World Magazine: Learning and Memory: How do we remember an why do we often forget. Kenneth Wesson