How We Learn: Brain Research and Classroom Practice- Part II

Alex MacPhail | 12.4.2013

Continued from How We Learn: Brain Research and Classroom Practice—Part I  

In this two-part post, we discuss five areas of brain research that teachers should consider: the five senses, memory, prior learning, emotion, and pattern recognition. Each example includes both a summary of the neuroscience as well as tips for using that research in the classroom.

 3. All new learning builds on previous learning. The learning process is influenced by what the learner already knows and can do. Giving students the opportunity to build upon previously acquired and mastered skills can accelerate and enhance the acquisition of new skills. That said, misconceptions are just as durable and persistent as correct conceptions, and students will continue to build upon misconceptions if they are not identified and corrected. Here is a classic example of misconceptions held by recent Harvard University graduates.

In the classroom: Pre-assessment can help students access previously learned knowledge and skills, while also surfacing misconceptions that teachers will need to address. Ian Byrd (@ByrdseedGifted) provides a great list of characteristics of effective pre-assessments.

4. Emotion drives attention, and attention drives learning and memory. While the educational applications of research on emotion and learning are still in their early stages, some research suggests that emotions play a strong role in how we learn and retain knowledge. When teachers create stimulating, inspiring, and rewarding learning activities, students are more likely to be engaged and attentive, and recall will improve.

In the classroom: Activities such as role-playing and cooperative projects can provide important contextual memory that a student may need in order to recall important information. Additionally, using stories to introduce and frame investigations draws students in. There is some evidence, as researched by Jonathan Gottschall, that it is in our nature, as humans, to tell and receive stories. Chip and Dan Heath, in their short piece Teaching That Sticks, argue for including both story and emotional components in teaching to help students attend and engage with content.

5. The brain looks for patterns. Information is more readily processed if it can be immediately associated with information already present in the brain. Examples, metaphors, and analogies work because they take advantage of the brain’s natural inclination for pattern recognition and matching. Metaphors can even help students think more productively about a given subject and about the learning process.

In the classroom: Use graphic organizers to help students see patterns. has great resources on graphic organizers. Some invite students to plan out an essay, while this one helps students identify what they already know about a topic, what they want to learn, and (after investigating) what they have learned.


Much of the information in this post comes from the invaluable texts How People Learn and Brain Rules, as well as from a wonderful lecture by Susan Grant in 2010.

What other ideas about brain research influence your teaching practice?

Image courtesy of digitalart at


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