Keeping Brain-Friendly Learning In Mind When Teaching Students


Since we teachers are professionals who deal with the development of young students’ brains daily, we need to make sure that we understand how learning occurs and how to foster it.

The brain’s biological circuitry for learning and remembering is about the same in learners of all ages. However, how efficient the brain is at this process varies with the degree of development in the brain regions that are involved (Shaw et al., 2006). Other factors impacting the brain’s efficiency are emotional and social factors, past experiences and prior knowledge, and learner motivation

In adults, these factors are more developed than they are in children. This means that these factors have a more significant influence on adults than children. Learning is what helps individuals survive. As a result, we are all motivated to learn. Students are more motivated and successful in academic learning when they believe they belong and are accepted in those classrooms (Yeager et al., 2013).

For many young adults, wanting to fit in with peers (Schultheiss, 2008) is a significant motivator for learning. On the other hand, adults are less concerned with peer approval and more interested in learning things that will help them become better or more knowledgeable in their career, family life, or hobbies. 

Everyone has intrinsic motivations, which comes from satisfying a job well done. Four key factors impact the intensity of a learner’s intrinsic motivation in any given situation. They are emotions, feedback, past experiences, and meaning.

#1 -Emotions and Learning

The first factor influencing how we learn and remember things is our emotions. Our brain pays attention to stimuli and events that are connected to emotions.  We remember things with emotion attached to them, like fear, great happiness, or embarrassment. These memories often last a lifetime since emotions are connected to our brains. 

How we feel about a learning situation affects our attention and memory.  In adolescents, the area of the brain that controls emotions, the limbic area, is fully developed. The region responsible for reflective thinking and controlling those emotional reactions (prefrontal cortex) is not fully developed until around 25 (Johnson, Blum & Giedd, 2009).  This explains why teenagers often overtly display their emotions through sighs, eye-rolling, and audible gasps and comments.  

Since adults have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, their emotions are generally kept more in check in their day-to-day lives. When people (both adults and children) feel positive and interested in the learning they are being asked to do, chemicals called endorphins and dopamine flood the brain.  Endorphins provide a feeling of excitement. The chemical dopamine helps keep the learner attentive, engaged, and likely to remember what they are doing or experiencing. 

Negative emotions cause the release of the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream. The presence of cortisol triggers the “fight or flight” survival mode in our brains. The brain’s attention shifts away from learning so it can decide what to do about the source of the stress. Our old primal brain system takes over and starts sending messages to the brain to fight or get away from the place through flight.

The brain now connects to the stressor and labels the incident as unpleasant and avoided in the future. For example, perhaps you were embarrassed or ridiculed by a teacher in front of your peers while you were in school. Most likely, this feeling left a lasting impression on your brain. It probably impacted your willingness to learn from this teacher in the future.  This is most likely true, even though many years have passed since this incident. You may still vividly remember the incident as well as how you felt at the time. When negative emotions take over, learning shuts down. The brain protects you by imprinting the event and your feelings into your long-term memory.

#2 – The Role of Feedback

Brain imaging shows that brain regions associated with motivation are more active when individuals receive constructive feedback to improve performance than individuals doing the same tasks but receiving no feedback on performing (Van Duijvenvoorde et al., 2008).  Feedback is a critical element of motivation. Positive, constructive feedback helps people feel valued and increases their willingness to improve their performance. Feedback also needs to be timely. The sooner the individual receives reinforcement for desirable behaviors, the more likely that person will continue improving the behavior. 

Effective feedback is often essential to learning new knowledge and skills (Ericsson et al., 1993). Feedback needs to be specific. Simply saying, “Nice work.” or “You are doing a good job.” does not motivate an individual to keep trying. This is especially true when the work is challenging. 

A better approach is to provide specific feedback to the student. For example, you could say, “Your topic sentence is clear and captures the reader’s attention.  Look at your supporting details and see if you can find stronger examples that better support what you have said in the topic sentence.”  or “You had a good start on this problem. Still, you have some of the steps out of order, so your answer is incorrect.  Take a look at this line and my example and see if you can identify where you made your mistake.” Specific feedback helps the brain reflect on ways to improve performance. 

#3 & 4 – The Role of Past Experiences and Making Meaning

What we already know (background knowledge) and our past experiences always affect new learning.  As we learn something new, our brain connects any long-stored items that it thinks relate to the new learning. This information interacts with the latest knowledge and helps us interpret it based on what we already know (or think we know) about the topic. 

It is also clear that novices and experts do not think the same way (Glaser & Chi, 1988). Experts use their background knowledge and past experiences to automate basic tasks or processing. This allows them to free up cognitive space to address more complex aspects of a task or problem. They use their knowledge to see patterns and organize their understanding differently than do novice learners. By understanding the difference in the thinking of novices and beginners, we can support students in developing their knowledge and expertise. 

Cognitive development is not related to a fixed progression of age-related stages (Willingham, 2008). What matters is individual differences and the prior knowledge that a child brings to the classroom. Learning is not a single path. It is highly variable between children and within children. 

While many educators still use Piaget’s stages of learning to guide their work, Willingham says that although many of his theories were insightful and may still have some validity, Piaget’s Four Stages of Development have been proven not to be entirely compatible with what we now know about how learning develops in our students. 

Willingham says that learning does not progress in discrete stages but depends on the child, the task, and sometimes even the day. A child may perform a task or solve a problem correctly one day but not do the same task correctly the next day.  According to cognitive scientists, children learn in “fits and starts.” 

As teachers, we always need to think about the effectiveness of the tasks we have given our students and also consider why they may not understand. Complex ideas can be introduced to students by making them more concrete and using their experience to help them connect to the new learning. 

When the new learning is finished, the brain decides whether to keep or encode the new information into long-term memory or let it fade away. The brain makes this decision based on two key questions:  Does this make sense based on what I already know? Does this information have meaning for me?  When the answer to both purpose and meaning is present, the brain’s likelihood of moving the data to long-term storage is more likely.

When a student asks, “Why do I have to learn this?” chances are high that the student is not connecting the learning as it is being presented to past experience. They may also not see the tasks they are being asked to do as meaningful. The student may comply, but the brain may discard the learning as irrelevant when the opportunity arises. The critical part of learning is being able to apply our knowledge. We want our students to retain what they learn and transfer that knowledge into action and long-term memory storage. 

The following are self-paced online courses that can help educators address these issues in their schools and classrooms.

Click here: An Introduction to Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Click here: Mind and Motivation in the Student-Centered Classroom

Teach & Kids Learn believes that when educators lead with passion, knowledge, and thoughtful instruction, students learn! Ready to learn more? Book a demo today!