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19th December 2017

Hacking Student Learning: 12 Neuroscience Tips for Teachers

Hacking Student Learning: 12 Neuroscience Tips for Teachers

No matter how different and independently minded each of us is, there’s something we all have in common. That’s the way our brains have evolved and developed. Throughout our evolutionary history, certain thought patterns and responses have developed to ensure we carry out tasks in the most efficient and productive way. These responses keep us safe from harm and ensure we capitalise on opportunities. Neuroscience is the study of such brain patterns.

By understanding the built-in ways our brains respond, we can start to ‘hack’ into the way people learn, develop and improve.

So here are 12 neuroscience principles to back up your work in the classroom.

1. Primary and Recency Effects

When we’re given a load of information, it’s far easier for us to recall the first thing and the last thing we see. These start and stop points punctuate our information intake, making it easier for our brain to stick a mental bookmark in these positions. What comes in the middle is not so easy to pick out, as it merges into the whole experience.

For example, in a football league, you’ll certainly be able to remember which teams came first and last but it won’t be as easy to reel off all the positions of the teams in between. When it comes to teaching, you can use primary and recency effects to place the most important take-home information at the start and the end of the lesson. To that effect, we’ve placed one of the most important things we remember at the end of this list.

2. Originality

Ever wondered how it is we can recall all the details of crazy stories that happened years ago but not the everyday things that happened recently? In neuroscience, this is known as salience, where our attention is drawn to what is novel.

The films we find boring are the ones that are predictable. The experiences we love are the ones where we got to try something different and unusual.

The same applies to lessons. Always conform to the same rules and approaches and the ability to remember them will become dampened. Cliche approaches will start to get tuned out because they’ve been seen and heard before and the brain assigns lesser importance to them. However, by striving to always add an original element, you will go down in school history.

3. Simplicity

It’s a very simple truth that the brain prefers to think about things that are easy to think about. This is known as cognitive fluency. As soon as any complexity is added, it’s harder for the brain to process. When faced with multiple objectives, this is distracting and it becomes harder to focus on what’s important.

The average brain is able to store between 5-9 chunks of information within in the short term. This is known as working memory. Too many chunks can cause the loss of focus and impair decision making. It’s called decision fatigue.

To illustrate this point, a taste experiment was done with jam. One tasting group had six flavours to try and another group had sixteen flavours. The group with just six choices went on to buy 33% more jam than the other group who had to decide between many more flavours. This goes to show simplicity and memory recall ease the decision-making process.

On that basis, students can be assisted by ensuring lesson structures never overload their working memory beyond capacity.

4. Contrast

We are naturally primed to spot things that stand out. From an evolutionary perspective, we are drawn to colourful fruits that want to be eaten and warned by colourful animals that really don’t. It’s the contrast of colour against backgrounds that draw our focus and guide our decisions. Of course, the converse is camouflage, where things slip by unnoticed. For example, just imagine how effective road signs would be if they blended into the surroundings. They are specially designed to stand out and be noticed.

Contrast to learning is what the shiny object is to a magpie. That’s why the design and presentation of key information are important. If the main point is to be taken in, it must visually stick out in relation to its surrounding information and be given plenty of space to shine through. That’s space in time as well as physical space. For important points to really sink in, the subconscious mind needs time to digest them before being surpassed with new information.

5. Visual

Associations Our brain makes sense of things through visuals. We don’t dream in text and numbers, we dream in pictures. If you think about it, written language is really just visual pattern recognition anyway.

Much of our memory is associative through visuals. That’s where the power of mental associations exists. It, therefore, stands to reason that if you want to leave people with a lasting impression, provide a visual experience that can easily be recalled.

Many people have discovered the benefits of using ‘Memory Palace’ techniques to associate a prominent visual with each piece of information to remember. The same premise can be used by attaching strong image associations to key topics to be remembered.

6. Relevancy

Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions. Personal experiences are more easily recalled than incidents that happened to others. This is known as an availability bias. We remember own actions better than we remember others.

The secret to getting people to care about something is to ensure they are able to frame it in such a way that puts them in the picture and has some sort of implication to their own life. A simple trick to achieve this is to always ask the question, ‘so what?’ So what forces you to dig down and find the reason something personally relates beyond superficial understanding from descriptions or statistics alone.

Learning new information can often be seen as a chore if not by choice. This is because it can feel like filling your head with knowledge without really knowing the reason why. We have no reason to be fond of something when we don’t understand its purpose. This is called an affect heuristic (a mental shortcut), where the degree of attention given is based on whether something is liked or disliked.

If however, we can clearly understand the relevancy of information in terms of why it matters in the real world, it no longer feels like blindly learning but feels more like preparing. Relevancy is the fuel for motivation.

7. Analogy

We deal with almost everything that happens to us by comparing ongoing events with past experiences. We don’t always know we’re doing this as it mostly occurs in our subconscious. When something new comes along, we look for this past reference to make sense of it.

That’s the beauty of analogy. Analogous situations provide a situation that we already recognise. They make the strange familiar. It’s a wonderful shortcut to learning as you just need to associate with already well-established knowledge. Tough topics become far easier to grasp once you can draw parallels with familiar situations.

Perhaps remembering a historical figure could be easier once likened to the actions of a modern celebrity? Maybe maths problems can make more sense when numbers are restated as physical objects in the real world situation? Analogies can be found by asking ‘what does this situation remind me of?’. You’ll begin to find ways of helping students relate the topic to a more familiar context to them.

8. Fun and Games

When we perform synchronised activities such as singing songs, playing games or even a simple act such as walking together, we feel more connected to the people we’re performing these activities with.

This means we begin to look out for each other more and care about each other’s achievements. That’s why playful activities in the classroom are not merely just fun but instrumental in generating a culture of positive success.

9. Repetition

We often decide the relative importance of issues by how easily they are retrieved from memory. More frequently mentioned topics persist in our memory and bubble up to the surface much more readily. This is known as the familiarity principle. It causes us to feel more positively about things we are more frequently or consistently exposed to. Ever had a song that you didn’t like at first but has since ‘grown on you’? That’s the reason. It’s a very simple principle to bring into the classroom; the more vital something is to remember, the more often you should bring it up in lessons.

10. Involvement

If you’ve ever built your own flat-pack furniture, you’ll know the effort it takes to cobble it together then the reward you feel when it’s stood in pride of place. This is called the Ikea effect. The more effort we put into an activity, the more we value it.

When it comes to the classroom, this is the power of involvement. Passive learning is less effective than when someone has a chance to experience it for themselves and take pride in the outcome. This is where project-based learning really comes into its own. Even small-scale activities can boost this sense of achievement and create a stronger connection with the lesson.

11. Positivity

Almost a third of our brain is dedicated to scanning for negatives. In evolutionary terms, this is our safety net to avoid dangerous situations. It means negative emotions and bad feedback have a stronger impact and are processed more thoroughly than good emotions and feedback. The result is we are driven more to avoid losses than achieve gains. We won’t stick our necks out if we fear disapproval or negative repercussions.

With that in mind, you can appreciate the need to place more emphasis on a positive environment. A positive environment is one where we feel freer to experiment and enjoy learning in a variety of different ways. Positivity puts us in a better frame of mind. It’s called a mood heuristic, whereby a better mood increases our enjoyment and satisfaction level. The more we enjoy learning, the more we want to learn.

12. Storytelling

Ever seen a child uninterested in a toy until another child starts playing with it? Then all of a sudden they are desperate to have it. This is called mimetic desire, which simply means, we want what others have. We are more likely to do something when we see someone else do it first.

That is the real secret of storytelling to influence behaviour. We see an action taking place and we want to put ourselves in the picture. Instead of dry information, a story narrative pulls us in an enables us to identify the situation. The stronger the story, the more importance we attach to the subject. We also become more confident when the story comes easily to mind. All that adds up to a powerful learning experience.

Now over to you. How are you currently weaving these principles into your lessons? Where else could you tap into the ways students think and further influence their learning?

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