Advances in medical technology such as positive emission tomography (PET) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have shown us how the brain actually functions while learning. We can now apply the latest neuroscience research findings to design instructional materials and deliver what is called brain-based instruction. We can also apply these in our classrooms to create the perfect “brain-compatible classroom”.
So, here are some brain research findings and implications for us as educators:
Short term memory can hold only 7 bits of information plus or minus.
Any new information first goes to short term memory. According to famous cognitive psychologist George Miller, short term memory can hold only 7 bits of information, plus or minus two. More recent findings have revised this figure to four bits. Information next travels to another temporary memory called working memory, which has a longer time span. From here the information either moves to long term memory (permanent storage) or fades into oblivion. Unless actively rehearsed, information stays in working memory for 10-15 seconds only (Goldstein).
Implication for Educators: Repetition is the key. A new information or fact should not be said only once. It should be revised, so that it is processed again and again and moved to long term memory. Elaborate Rehearsal: showing content via videos, audio, and slideshows can help tutors achieve the desired effect. Associating that fact with student’s prior knowledge helps the student retain the same permanently.
Left brain and right brain work together in learning. In approximately 95% of the population, left hemisphere processes the content (language and speech) while right hemisphere is dominant in decoding the context.
It’s a common myth that only one hemisphere is dominant in a human. Wrong. Both work together in all learning situations.
Implications for Educators: Educators have to teach both halves of the brain. Meaning? Place emphasis on both the content as well as the context. Here’s an excerpt from the book Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice (2001) by Patricia Wolfe:
We need to teach content within a context that is meaningful to students, and that connects to their own lives and experiences. This is teaching to both halves of the brain. Too often, the curriculum is taught in isolation, with little effort put into helping students see how the information is, or could be, used in their lives. Too many students never comprehend the “big picture” of how the content they are learning fits in the larger scheme of things.We need to teach content within a context that is meaningful to students, and that connects to their own lives and experiences. This is teaching to both halves of the brain. Too often, the curriculum is taught in isolation, with little effort put into helping students see how the information is, or could be, used in their lives. Too many students never comprehend the “big picture” of how the content they are learning fits in the larger scheme of things.
Emotionally arousing incidents are better remembered than neutral events.
Emotional arousal triggers increased activity in the amygdala region in turn enhancing memory-related activity in other regions of the brain like medial temporal lobe and hippocampus (The Human Amygdala by Paul J. Whalen, Elizabeth A. Phelps).
In an experiment, Stephen Hamann of Emory University used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the memory for emotional and non-emotional picture stimuli. He found that subjects remembered twice as many emotional words as neutral ones.
Implication for Educators: Positive emotions strengthen learning and should thus be incorporated in teaching. How? Marilee Sprenger in her book “How to Teach So Students Remember“, advises teachers to begin the lesson with a story. “It can be a personal story that you somehow relate to the topic at hand, or it can be a secondhand story with connections to the topic.”
Another way is to use channels of interaction like text, audio, and video chat, in the virtual class. It makes students feel welcome and a part of a group. Emoticons should be employed while chatting in the virtual class. Several teachers report that students love using emoticons while chatting in WizIQ’s Virtual Classroom.
Hippocampus is susceptible to stress hormones which can inhibit cognitive functioning and long-term memory.
Negative emotions leading to high levels of stress impair memory. Stress in the classroom or elsewhere, raises dopamine activity in the prefrontal cortex. This increased dopamine activity (DA) has been linked to disruptions in working memory. (Dr. Kathie F. Nunley, 2013).
Implications for Educators: Students who feel threatened in classroom operate in a survival mode and it’s difficult for effective learning to take place in such a scenario. Where eLearning professionals are concerned, they should ensure that the technology used is student-friendly. Opportunities for one-on-one interaction between teacher and student should be provided. For instance, private chatting can help shy students raise their doubts and get them instantly clarified.
Brain is not designed for long periods of attentiveness.
Most studies suggest that the average attention span of an adult human is 15-20 minutes. More recent studies showing the impact of internet especially social media on attention spans reveal that the attention span has dropped from 12 minutes to 5 minutes (Infographic sponsored by Assisted Living Today).
Though studies have not given us any fixed figure in this regards, observations and experience reveals that students need a break in concentration at least every 20 minutes. If not provided, brain naturally wanders to some other place. (Sousa, 1995).
Implication for Educators: Teachers should break their eLearning modules into chunks of 15 minutes each. Instead of changing the topic, the method of teaching should be changed. Teachers can play a video in the virtual class, assign students to “breakout rooms” and ask them to perform an activity in groups, etc. John Medina, the well-known developmental molecular biologist, advocated the use of “hooks” in the class after every 10 minutes, and that applies to virtual classrooms as well.
The hooks should trigger emotion, be relevant to the class content, and serve as bridges at transition points in a lesson. A hook can be a story that personalizes the subject matter, a powerful image that will captivate students, or simply the use of humor to change the dynamics of the classroom. Memory at Work in the Classroom: Strategies to Help Underachieving Students by Francis Bailey, Ken Pransky (p. 88)
Good chances are that you knew most of these findings and are already successfully using them to mold your teaching practices. But you probably didn’t know why stories worked, why short eLearning modules worked, etc. Well, now you know.
- Learning and Memory: The Brain in Action by Marilee Sprenger
- The Brain-Compatible Classroom: Using what we know about learning to improve teaching by Laura Erlauer
- Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice by Patricia Wolfe
- Memory at Work in the Classroom: Strategies to Help Underachieving Students by Francis Bailey, Ken Pransky