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What is Brain-based Learning and What Does It Offer Higher Ed?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

As a graduate of a doctoral program with a heavy emphasis on learning science, I have long believed that we will eventually understand the inner workings of the human brain to such a degree that we will be able to quantify the effects of every interaction and learning experience. This knowledge will allow us to distill learning down to the most basic and efficient level. This advancement could eventually make it possible to "program" the human brain with new knowledge simply by activating the correct sequence of neural transmitters. Neuroscience is constantly working to advance the field and make my dream a reality. It recently may have inched a bit closer. According to middle school teacher and learning-centered brain research neurologist Dr. Judy Willis, we are making progress towards understanding how the human brain functions. This knowledge already provides educators with insight into how best to engage students and make learning the most effective and efficient that it can be.  Here’s what you, as an educator need to know to help your students’ brains learn most efficiently.

Understanding How the Brian Works
In her podcast for Edutopia on brain-based learning, Willis presents two major areas of brain function which, if properly understood, can help educators ensure that their students are focused on the material being learned and that the information is reaching the proper part of the brain to be processed.

The two primary areas that Willis discussed in the video are the Reticular Activating System (RAS) and the Amygdala . Working separately, these two areas of the brain help to determine what gets into the brain and where it goes once it gets in. If managed properly, these two gatekeepers to learning can help to ensure that students reflect on classroom stimuli rather than simply react to it, and that they can increase their ability to learn and retain new skills and information.

Getting Past the First Roadblock – Reticular Activating System (RAS)
According to Willis, at any given moment only about 2,000 bits out of the millions of discrete pieces of information that our senses  are constantly bombarded with can reach our conscious attention. The gatekeeper that decides what gets through is the RAS, located in the brain stem. This primitive part of the brain works in much the same way that it has since our human ancestors were hiding in caves and running for their lives from better-equipped predators.  This part of the brain is regulated by our basic survival instincts to notice what has changed or is different in our environment. When something new is present it is given the highest priority for our perception, particularly if it is perceived as a possible threat.

In this way, the student is like a small fox emerging from its den. Its first assessment must be of what has changed, what is different and if there is danger, or if something new in the environment can result in pleasure or the fulfilling an immediate goal such as food. This is a double edged sword. Perceived stress or danger in the classroom environment can make students focus only on the negative to the detriment of learning. Positive, interesting, or engaging changes in the classroom environment activate students’ curiosity. Similarly, reducing stress can help information get through the RAS filter. In short, if there is no danger to survival, other priorities can be addressed.

Second Filter: Amygdala
Once information is allowed into the brain by the RAS, it passes through and is actively sent on to specific locations by the Amygdala. At this point, stressful stimuli are sent to subconscious areas of the brain for action. If something is positive, the stimuli are sent on to places like the memory and positive receptors in the active, thinking brain.
According to Willis, stress causes the amygdala to take information and act in one of the three ways that are not conducive to learning: flight, fight, or freeze. Students who have been triggered to act in these ways exhibit behavior that does not allow them to learn. They can turn off from the lesson, actively resist it, or completely shut down and become unresponsive. In contrast, events that are not perceived as stressful, have a much greater potential for being perceived as positive, thus allowing learning to happen.

Positively perceived stimuli are sent to the frontal cortex, or the reflective brain, which responds to them as interesting, relevant, or pleasurable. If information can reach this level of the brain, it can be consciously acted on, committed to memory, combined with other information to create new knowledge, or translated into activity. Willis summarized this activity as the amygdala judging "here/me/now" – is the information being shared something that the student should care about right here, right now, and that it is relevant for them. If not, they will zone out and the information won’t get through. So how can instructors ensure that their students learn with maximum efficiency?

Classroom Strategies for Brain-Based Learning
Fortunately, this is neuroscience not rocket science, and there are things that educators can do to make sure that their teaching gets past these roadblocks and into students’ brains.

  • Encourage stability and familiarity: Students learn best when they are comfortable. This allows information to bypass the RAS’s fight or flight response so that students can concentrate on learning rather than being concerned over their "safety."
  • Incorporate non-threatening strangeness, novelty or surprise.  Sparking interest through the use of color, costumes, and music gets the amygdala’s attention and helps students’ brains send important information along to be processed.  
  • Advertise lessons in advance of doing them, but make things a mystery to build interest. Building interest prior to a learning event helps students feel comfortable with what is coming while making some aspects of the event mysterious helps to engage the amygdala appropriately. Creating interest can make figuring something out a personal goal for students and increase their investment in the process.
  • Stimulate prior knowledge. This is one of the most common strategies for educators and this research supports it. Educators should strive to understand what their students already know that can help them be familiar with new information.

These tips will apply differently in every subject, from literature to mathematics or science. They all stem from the same fundamental understanding of the human brain though. Figure out how to get past the subconscious gatekeepers and you have a great chance to help your students learn and retain what they are hearing.  

Take a moment to share what strategies work for you here or on Google+ or Twitter.