Another thing to keep in mind when keeping the attention of students is the volume of information presented. Information should be presented in chunks with adequate time in between for processing. In fact, a study from Johns Hopkins University suggests that new skills can take up to 6 hours to solidify in the brain and that new learning may contaminate the memory imprinting process. In other words, the brain cannot withstand 3 hours of constant mathematical instruction and continually absorb new skills in that time. Instead, one skill should be presented at a time with adequate time for cognitive processing and practice.
How can we help students remember more of what they learn in class? While this question may seem simple, the answer is not. Most researchers agree that the physical evidence of memory is stored as changes in neurons along specific pathways. There is no single location in the brain to find memories, but rather memories are built throughout the brain depending on how the memory was formed. For example, memories of sound are stored in the auditory cortex and the hippocampus stores many spatial memories.
The building of a memory must first start with a stimulus which is then passed on to the sensory register to determine the importance of the stimulus. Here, stimuli like birds chirping, or the feeling of shoes on your feet can be weeded out. Next, the stimulus is processed by short term memory that acts much like RAM in a computer. This short term memory holds information in the active parts of the mind for instant use. Those short term memories are then filtered down into active processing. Those short term memories which are not actively processed are lost. Finally, some of the memories that are actively processed are stored in long term memory. This being the case, teachers can increase the amount of memory stored in long term memory by making sure that students are required to actively process thoughts and manipulate them. Data that is merely seen or heard stands less of a chance for long term storage.
It was once thought that the majority of the wiring in our brain stemmed from heredity. While heredity does control some of how we think, experiences and environment constitutes the majority of our brain's system of thought. In fact, an investigation at the University of California concluded that the brain can grow new connections through environmental stimulation. In other words, our neurons begin to grow more dendrites which increase the connections in our brain.
If an enriched environment is important for learning, one must ask, "What constitutes an enriched environment?" An enriched environment is most importantly safe for the learner. Without a sense of safety, the learner's brain will engage survival mode, (amigdala) and the active learning parts of the brain will be neglected. Also, an enriched environment will be challenging to the student and have new information. This will keep the attention of the brain and trigger active thought. Feedback is also an essential for an enriched environment. This feedback will give the brain direction in its learning as well as provide the brain with positive and negative stimulus. Lastly, an enriched environment should contain varying amounts of novelty. By changing the surroundings such as the classroom layout, posters, and bulletin boards the learning brain is actively involved in making sense of its surroundings and therefore is engaged.
As the brain continually accepts new information, the brain is also required to prioritize this information according to importance. Often this thought process is verbalized by students when one may ask, "Why do we have to know this?" or "Will this be on the test?" While these questions may seem annoying, for the learning mind they are quite valid. By making learning authentic to a real life situation the brain now gives higher priority to this information thus allowing it to be recalled more easily. It is these experiences that determine which synapses are shed and which ones are retained.
Emotions and Teaching
Emotions and learning were once thought to be at opposite ends of the spectrum in respect to brain science; however newer research shows just the opposite. Neuroscientists such as Joseph LeDoux and Jerome Kagan have concluded that emotions typically drive attention in the brain and also assist in creating meaning. Furthermore, emotions have their own pathways to the storage of memories and are highly connected to many parts of the brain. This being the case, emotions assist the brain in the storage and retrieval of information and give meaning to incoming data. In other words, emotions help the brain learn.
Although emotions assist the brain in learning, emotions may also detract from what an individual may want the brain to learn. For example, if an adolescent in a classroom is overwhelmed by feelings of fear either from another student or a teacher, that student is less likely to learn the long division presented in class. Instead the focused learning parts of the brain are preoccupied with fear. By making classrooms a safe environment the brain is more likely to process the information the teacher presents to the student. Furthermore, the teacher may assist learning in the brain by infusing an emotional element in with the topic for that days lesson.
Motivating students has often been the illusive "holy grail" of teaching. If students can be self motivated, learning nearly takes place automatically. Therefore, teachers must ask themselves, "What motivates students?" Again, the answer may be a bit more complicated than originally thought. Previously there existed thinking that external motivation such as candy or extra free time would tap into the students sense of motivation. While these extrinsic rewards have some validity many of the meaningful and motivational rewards are found internally in the brain.
Studies have shown that the brain is naturally curious and willing to seek new experiences without any perceivable external reward. This natural curiosity breeds an internal motivation to learn. By tapping into the curiosity of students with "hooks" or "discrepant events" at the beginning of a lesson, teachers are able to generate naturally curious, and therefore motivated, students.
Students are also motivated by a sense of accomplishment and the achievement of a goal. These small victories in the brain spark the release of chemicals in the brain called opiates. These opiates, which are similar to the chemicals found in many controlled substances, produce a natural high or sense of wellbeing. By setting attainable goals for students to reach, students will more often experience these natural highs and thus become internally motivated to reach personal goals again.
Now that we are aware of the science of the brain and the way a brain learns, the next logical question is, "How do we teach the brain?" Many of the teaching strategies listed below may seem rather rudimentary. It is the reasoning behind these teaching strategies that is most interesting and may improve the effectiveness of their implementation.
Getting the Brain's Attention
Getting students to pay attention is often one of the most difficult tasks in any classroom. Before teachers lose their patience with students, there are first a few things one must understand. First, the brain has natural times of high attention and low attention throughout the day. These times of high attention are triggered by chemicals in the brain like norepinephrine while low attention times are caused by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. While these times of high and low attention vary slightly from person to person, studies show that these brain cycles typically last anywhere from 90 -110 minutes in adults.
Secondly, these high and low attention cycles can be altered slightly by external stimuli. Bodily movements like streching or jumping jacks can quickly draw the brain out of its low attention cycle. Also, in order to minimize the effects of the brains low attention cycles, small 10-20 minute breaks or naps can greatly increase productivity overall. In fact, Thomas Edison was known for taking short naps throughout the day and in some businesses a short nap during the day is actually encouraged. By allowing students short breaks between subjects or encouraging physical movement from time to time, teachers may prolong the attention span of their students.