Brain Research and Learning

Brain Research and Learning



Brief Summary of Research Findings on Students’ Learning


1.        Practice increases learning—– but the kind of practicethat creates new neuronal networks is the key.


2.        There is a corresponding relationship between the amount of experience in a complex learning environment and the amount of structural changes in the brain. Environment does make a difference.


3.        Learning changes the physical structures of the brain.


4.        Learning organizes and reorganizes the brain.


5.        Emotion is the mortar that holds learning together

(James Zull, 2002)


Brain research’s impact on new learning theories do not provide a simple recipe for designing effective learning environments but it does constrain the designs of effective ones. (Robert Sylwester, A Celebrations of Neurons)







1.    The Brain and Learner Centered Teaching


Learners need to feel some control of their learning. It is human nature to seek control over what is happening to us.


Cognition, control, fear and pleasure are the four things the brain uses for survival and they are fundamental to every brain. A student who feels they have no control over the learning process may exert their control by choosing not to take part.


Who controls the learning process in your classroom?


  • Who sets the curriculum?


  • Who designs the learning outcomes?


  • Who designs the learning environment?


  • Who set the attendance, late work or late for class policies?


  • Who chooses the textbook?


  • Who sets the pace of learning?


  • Who determines what feedback is given?


  • Who determines the grading system?


  • Who determines how information will be taught?


Is the answer to any of these questions the students?


Control is a key to understanding motivation—the survival brain can easily detect deceptions like reward and punishment—both require giving up control.( Zull, 2002)





2. Background or Prior Learning


“The single most important factor in learning is the existing networks of neurons in the learner’s brain. Ascertain what they are and teach accordingly.”( Zull, 2002)



What the learners bring to the learning environment—their beliefs, cultural backgrounds, knowledge of academic content, learning skills and study strategies determine the ease or difficulty of their learning.


Learners use current knowledge to construct new knowledge, and what they know and believe at the moment affects how they interpret new information.


Current knowledge can help but can also hamper learning—unlearning is difficult.


Teachers must take time to gather information about their students and use the teaching tools of analogy, metaphor, simile and example to build concrete experiences with which students can connect.





3. Understanding Emotion and the Brain is Necessary for Effective Instruction


The body develops certain feelings associated with specific cognitive tasks. A. Damasio calls them body markers or somatic markings (Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, 1994)


These feelings can and do impact learning –a student’s  confidence or lack of it—the fear of some things or the pleasure things bring are often already wired into the students because of prior learning experiences.


Emotions influence our thinking more than thinking influences our

emotions—in part because there is more wiring in the brain leading from the amygdala to the cerebral cortex than vice versa. ( Zull, 2002)


All structures known to influence emotions are all connected to each other in the brain



The amygdala—the “danger center” of the brain is always monitoring sensory input. As teachers we need to understand that this happens automatically.

If students feel unsafe, fearful, feel a loss of control, have anxiety or worry about embarrassment the amygdala will be much more in control than the cortical brain (Learning brain).


This is why it is so important to create a sense of community and connection with students—when they feel safe the amygdala is less involved and opportunity for learning is greatly increased.



4. Attention and Learning


Teachers are in constant competition for students’ attention.


Learning is not possible without attention.


The more important something is to us the more distracting feelings can be—fear of losing or fear of failure.


Wanting a particular result to occur can be so powerful that it wins out over rationality—this is a big issue in research.


The less engaging teachers are the  more difficult for students to hold their attention.


To become disciplined as learner means we care more about being disciplined than we do other things—it’s still an emotional process.


The battle for attention is a big part of teaching.

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