Neuroscience and Teaching/Learning


What will help me survive, choose, fight back,grow, learn, keep alive. That I’ll read or think about: anything else can wait.

– Sharon Daloz Parks

1. A Catalyst for Change

Many post-secondary instructors have no formal training in pedagogy. But neuroscience has provided some insights as to how humans learn. The limbic system determines whether or not information (or other stimuli) are safe, interesting, relevant, and worth paying attention to. Metaphorically, the garage door of the brain, so it’s important to keep it open. Dendrites with synapses connect one part of the brain to anther. Repetition builds neural pathways. The amygdala rewards us with pleasure when new connections are made. Metaphorically, practice is like holding frequent flyer status while flying: it allows you to make connections faster. And the more connections you’ve made, the more you can make. Time and effort will increase dentritic connection. Reflection (also known as “thinking”) allows students to make more connections and absorb new material.

To keep garage door open:

A. Assure students

  • decrease anxiety before a quiz
  • activate happy thoughts via happy picture
  • advertise what you’ll be covering
  • be aware of the environment- temperature, noise, crowding, etc.

B. Empower students

  • teach students how they learn
  • they are in control. If students believe they can succeed, they will recover from failure better
  • practice = growth
  • the brain wants to learn
  • modeling and accepting failure. Failure is an opportunity to learn

C. Explore with students

  • activate prior knowledge
  • use names and experiences.
  • Build one-on-one relationships
  • use hard and soft scaffolding. Hard scaffolding helps identified student difficulties in learning

D. Engage students

  • emotions + learning = memory — using games and colour
  • attention span typically runs about 20 minutes. Use timer to change pace of class
  • problem solving opportunities: give students chance to apply tools and synthesize knowledge
  • collaboration: students need to learn how to work with others.
  • your experience makes it relevant
  • active learning: whoever is most active in the classroom is learning the most

The pre-frontal cortex matures by 25 years or so and is in charge of executive functioning. So young people are typically not very good at time management, so require training and direction. Nor can humans multitask. Meyers insists that students place their cell phones on the desk. Healthy eating and sleeping are reuired for memory consolidation.

First year students are frequently in survival mode. They have high expectations but require much support, room to grow, and constant feedback. Students are typically more focussed on social problems than on academic concerns.

Some other hints:

  • There is an optimal amount of stress that enhances learning.
  • Use mind maps to consolidate understanding, monitor student comprehension, and organize ideas for paper-writing. Share mind maps so students can see how others make connections. Students should be able to explain rationale behind mind map.
  • Use a clipboard to keep notes on student engagement during small group exercises.

Questions to focus curriculum development:

  • What content is most important?
  • What do I want them to leave my class with?
  • Can they apply what they are learning?


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