Teaching Opinion

Response: Using ‘Brain-Based Learning’ in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 23, 2012 8 min read
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(This is the first of a multi-part series on “brain-based learning”)

Last week’s question was:

What are the best ways to practically implement what we know about how the brain learns into our teaching?

I’ve seen the phrase “brain-based learning” used often, and sometimes in ways that do not seem particularly helpful. However, it is short enough to fit in a blog post headline....

This post “kicks-off” a series on this topic. In addition, I’ve brought together my favorite useful related resources here.

Today, the staff at BrainFacts.org have brought together three affiliated neuroscientists to make contributions. Here is how BrainFacts.org describes itself:

is an interactive website designed to enrich the public’s understanding of the brain and mind. It is a public information initiative of The Kavli Foundation, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, and Society for Neuroscience. The site contains more than 1,000 scientifically reviewed articles and teaching tools developed by the Society for Neuroscience and key content partners. BrainFacts.org provides science educators with easy-to-use, fun, scientifically valid resources, to use in -- and beyond -- the classroom. This site aims to spark conversation and awareness about the progress, potential, and importance of neuroscience research.

Response From Nick Spitzer, PhD

For more than 40 years, Nick Spitzer has worked to educate others about neuroscience. A Distinguished Professor of Biology at the University of California, San Diego, and co-director of the UCSD Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, his research focuses on the ways in which neurons take on specialized functions to enable signaling in the brain. He is the also the editor-in-chief of BrainFacts.org:

This is a great question. Neuroscience research keeps providing insights into the way the brain learns, which can easily be incorporated into teaching practice. We know that a key aspect of learning is the strengthening of the connections, called synapses, between particular sets of neurons.

One fascinating result of research in this field is that synaptic strengthening is greatly enhanced when studying or training is spaced out over time instead of amassed during a short interval.

When I was a student I did a lot of cramming during the days and hours immediately prior to my exams. This allowed me to do well, but now we know that I would have learned better and retained information longer if I had studied consistently throughout the semester.

Researchers Tom Carew, Harold Pinsker, and Eric Kandel demonstrated this process 40 years ago, studying the behavior of the sea slug, Aplysia, and how it learned to respond to repeated stimuli. Ann-Shyn Chiang and others have provided a recent demonstration of this effect in the fruit fly, Drosophila, showing the importance for new protein synthesis that we know is essential for strengthening synaptic connections.

The results of spaced training versus “massed” training have been demonstrated for students too, and I now encourage my students to study every day instead of cramming for the tests.

Another striking result of research is the importance of retrieval for learning.

We thought for many years that the best way to learn is to study, study, and study some more in preparation for a test. However, recent research has demonstrated that although studying is good, and indeed is essential, consistently practicing the ability to recall information is even more effective.

Evaluation of long-term retention of knowledge has revealed that a sequence of study-test-study-test-study-test is more effective than a sequence of study-study-study-study-study-test. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it tells us that repeated testing, involving retrieval of information, assists in consolidation of the learning process. Students can use it as a method of studying or teachers can enforce it with quizzes and other informal assessments.

Neuroscience research is a gift that keeps on giving. New findings are reported every week that inform us about how we learn. We can expect to continue to apply these insights to enhance our teaching.

Response From Kurt Fischer, PhD

Kurt Fischer is Charles Bigelow Professor of Human Development and Psychology and director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. One product of his research is a single scale for measuring learning, teaching, and curriculum across domains, which is being used to assess and coordinate key aspects of pedagogy and assessment in schools:

Here are a few important insights from neuroscience about how the brain works.

First, students learn differently and have different interests. Instead of assuming that everyone learns in the same way, teachers do better when they assume that different students are indeed different.

One second-grade boy participated in a study designed to help students learn to read. At the end of the study, the boy’s parents profusely thanked us for helping their son learn to read: “Our son can read. It’s so wonderful. We are so happy he participated in this study.” But they misunderstood.

Here is what really happened:

Jimmy loved lawn mowers. We have come to call him “the lawn-mower boy.” He talked about lawn mowers constantly, and he tried to steal the lawn-mower manual from his parents so that he could learn from it. But his parents wanted him to read the book his second-grade teacher had assigned. Repeatedly they took away the manual and insisted that he read the other book.

What we did to help him learn to read was simple. We told the parents, “Let him read the lawn-mower manual.” When they followed that advice, Jimmy was highly motivated to master the manual, and he worked hard to learn how to read it. He spent hours studying the manual, and in doing so, he learned to read. His parents thought our intervention had helped him learn to read, but we knew from the actual results that the intervention had no positive effect. What helped Jimmy was being allowed to read what he was passionately interested in.

Research by Rosalie Fink demonstrates that this strategy works with many students who have difficulty with reading. She interviewed 60 adults with dyslexia who had become good readers and writers, and found that every one of them learned to read late (around 13 to 14 years). But every one eventually became fluent by working hard to read about topics they were passionate about -- topics such as airplanes, the Civil War, and lawn mowers.

Different students have different interests. Teachers can be most effective not by forcing students to learn from one standard curriculum, but by helping them to discover what they are passionate about, what they are especially interested in. Then learning becomes a natural activity for every student.

Response From Janet Dubinsky, PhD

Janet Dubinsky is a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota and an internationally recognized leader in neuroscience education. She is also the director of BrainU, a website dedicated to providing professional development resources, neuroscience lessons, and materials for grade 5-to-12 science teachers:

There are many ways neuroscience can inform teaching practices. One of the best ways teachers can use neuroscience in the classroom is by helping students to understand what’s happening in the brain when learning takes place.

The connections between brain cells, called synapses, change as we learn new information. For decades, neuroscientists have recognized that synapses grow stronger with practice, and weaker with disuse. In other words, how hard a student works at a task such as studying the multiplication tables or writing essays can make a difference in the circuitry of the brain.

By helping students to understand that studying and working hard brings about physical changes in the brain and related genes involved in learning and memory, they become empowered. It’s not just, “I got these genes from my mom and dad, and I’m a done deal.” It’s really, “I’m the one who has to take this genetic set and do something with it.”

Arming students with information about how one’s effort changes the brain can actually improve classroom performance. Researchers found New York City junior high school students informed about studying-induced brain changes scored higher on the state math exams than those who did not receive the lessons.

While the effort a student puts forth in the classroom is vital to his or her performance, neuroscience has also taught us that teachers must strive to create a classroom environment that is respectful of the knowledge a student brings to the classroom from previous experiences. We know that learning is an associative process at both synaptic and circuit levels. It’s important that teachers understand students’ prior knowledge in order to help them incorporate new information.

Additionally, neuroscience has taught us about the importance emotion plays in helping us remember information. We need an emotional stamp to take an experience and put it into long-term memory so it is important for teachers to strive to make materials salient to students. For instance, when teaching about U.S. history, engage students emotionally with the material, through analogies to current events or role play.

Thanks to BrainFacts.org and to Doctors Spitzer, Fischer, and Dubinsky for taking the time to contribute their responses!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be including those comments in a post next week.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

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And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here.

Look for Part Two of this series in a few days....

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.