How the Brain Thinks

May 28, 2019 by Hannah
Image "Supertutor” Mark Maclaine is Tutorfair's Co-founder and Director of Learning. Mark is currently working on his new book which is based on a series of real life clients and the experiences he has gained over his many years of tutoring. This series looks at ‘Maintaining your memory banks’ and the first chapter looks at how the brain thinks and how tutors can help certain tasks to become automatic.

As adults we barely give our daily activities a second thought – from tying our shoelaces in the morning to making our pasta in the evening. One of your tasks as a tutor is to help students make certain tasks automatic, so as to free up processing power which can then be used for higher-level, more creative tasks. Consider this simple model of thinking:



The working memory is a kind of “thinking space”, drawing on input from both the outside world and the long-term memory in order to perform cognitive tasks, like calculations or problem solving.

To see how it works, consider the following maths problem:

There are 12 cars in a garage, coloured black, white and blue. Half are black and a third are white. How many are blue?

To solve this problem, your brain will perform a set of processes, like this:

  1. The question enters your working memory

  2. An appropriate strategy to solve the problem is retrieved from the long-term memory

  3. “Half of 12” is retrieved from your long-term memory

  4. Your working memory retains “6”

  5. “A third of 12” is retrieved from the long-term memory.

  6. Your working memory retains “4”.

  7. Your working memory calculates 6 + 4 = 10.

  8. The difference between 10 and 12 is calculated in your working memory.

  9. Voila, you have the answer: 2.


The working memory temporarily holds a limited amount of information, and also performs calculations and comparisons. The long-term memory stores and manages information ready for later retrieval – the location of your nearest bank, what a pineapple looks like. It also contains shortcuts, called mental models. These save time when performing tasks like dividing numbers, making toast or changing gear in car.

While the working memory is capable of amazing feats, it only has a very limited capacity. Therefore students who know their times tables off by heart have an easier time than those who don’t. They excel not only in multiplication and division but in manipulating fractions, decimals and percentages, and other higher order tasks like factorisation.

Similarly, if you asked a young student to underline all the verbs in this paragraph, it might take her some time. She would see almost every word as a contender. By contrast, a professional writer would barely break a sweat, because identifying parts of speech would be second nature to her. Similarly, a historian can distil what’s useful in a primary document in a fraction of the time it would take a novice.

The crucial goal for tutors is to help our students make as much as possible automatic. In fact, “making automatic” is not a bad definition of learning. Sadly there are no shortcuts, the best way to do this is through sustained practice.
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