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Research & Resources

Teaching to the Brain in the College Classroom

Thomas R. Rosebrough, Ph.D., Executive Dean, College of Education and Human Studies & University Professor of Education

August 1, 1999 - An emerging realm of research in neurobiology is providing not only significant information about how we learn, but also a burgeoning optimism that we can find new ways of connecting with our students. How can we make those links? Let me focus on what we think we know about the learning potential of the brain by proposing the essence of some brain-compatible learning principles. 

  • Emotions are a key in learning.The amygdala, an almond-shaped gland in the middle of our brains, exerts a tremendous influence on our cortex. The brain, we are learning, craves information with emotional impact. We need emotional context for long-term memory to function. The amygdala processes our sensory information for its emotion (pleasure, pain, anger, sorrow, humor, nostalgia) and relays it to long-term memory. It is interesting to note that removing the brain's frontal lobe has little effect on intelligence test performance (even though it is the center for problem-solving); but removing the amygdala has a devastating effect upon our capacity for imagination, decision making, creative play, humor, love, and music. Effective ways to teach to emotions include storytelling, role playing, drama, art, music, debates, field trips, and guest speakers.

  • An enriched learning environment is primary. We must expect more. Our brains perform a kind of neural customizing according to the learning environment, be it barren or be it a rich landscape of knowledge. Marian Diamond's famous experiments on the brains of rats at UCLA in the late 1960s showed that rats in an enriched environment actually grew brains with thicker cortex, more dendrite branching, and larger cell bodies. Challenge is vital - too little or too much and students are frustrated or bored. Novelty is vital, too. Cooperative groups, for example, do two important things: They impart valuing and caring (releasing good peptides), and they provide specific feedback for students on their ideas as well as their behaviors. Also, there is evidence that our brains may be designed for music and the arts. Music actually primes the brain's neural pathways. Listening to Mozart before a test can have a calming effect for optimum learning.

  • Problem solving must be a way of class-room life. By age 12, students are ready for complex abstractions. The corpus callosum, the major bridge between our left and right hemi-spheres, is fully matured and can carry four billion messages a second. Adolescent and adult brains are ready for extra challenges. Surprisingly, neural growth happens because of the process, not the solution. We can go to school, rarely get a right answer, and still have a well-developed brain. 

  • The "big picture" is important. Teach from the whole to part. Teach from whole to part. Context is the learning structure we create for the learner. It can be a theme or an idea that provides a bigger picture within which learning can fit. If learning "fits," it has meaning. A simple discipline to follow in the classroom related to context is to briefly preview the day's objectives and/or content to be presented. It is also a sound principle to review the previous class's activities or goals met. All review and preview can be accomplished in a matter of a few minutes. Students can then "fit in" the knowledge they are expected to learn for that day as well as perceive the flow of knowledge communicated among classes.

  • Finally, work to eliminate threats. No matter how many positives we add to our college classroom environments, we must first work to reduce and eliminate the negatives. These include embarrassment, unrealistic deadlines, sarcasm, or lack of resources. Brain research tells us that fear and frustration can lead to a hopelessness in the learner that actually causes the brain to downshift in a physiological sense. Hormones like cortisol are released by the adrenal glands and have a depressing effect upon neural connections in the brain. Professors are well served to distinguish between frustration and challenge by seeking to be sensitive to students as individuals. 

By teaching to the brain, by using principles gleaned from neurobiology as well as psychology, we can create a new paradigm for teaching and learning - one full of promise and possibility for our college classrooms. 

article appeared in "The Teaching Professor," June/July 1999

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