Priming Your Brain for Academic Success

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

There is a section of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2007 book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, where he discusses the influence of expectations and our environment for learning. In one instance he recounts the results of a covert word association game on people’s behavior and state of mind. In another, he examines the difference in GRE results for academically comparable African American students when they are asked to racially identify at the outset of the test and when they are not. The results are dramatic and lead to an essential understanding of the subconscious effects that outside influences can have on students’ thinking, learning, and especially on their ability to perform academically.  An examination of the importance of these subconscious influences reveals several ways for educators and students to not only ward against them, but to take advantage of them to improve teaching and learning.

The Power of the Subconscious Mind
There is a reason that my 11 year-old daughter has already identified neuroscience as one potential career option – our brains are the most fascinating, perplexing, and complex things in the world. While watching a recent episode of Brain Games on how we make decisions ("You Decide," on National Geographic Channel), I was stunned to learn that our own brains will regularly deceive us in order to make sense of the world we live in. One example from the show revealed that our brains will effectively ignore what we consciously know to be true and replace it with something more convenient in order to simplify our mental processes. During the show people were asked to choose one face as "more attractive" form tow options presented on cards. Both cards were then hidden from view. A few seconds later, the option they did not choose was presented back to them as their choice. A majority of those who participated simply agreed that they had chosen the face that they had not chosen. It was simply too mentally difficult to question the "reality" set before them.

(Start the video at 6:38 for the example mentioned above)

Added to Gladwell’s examination of the way we often subconsciously make decisions, this look inside the human brain reveals some disturbing insight into the way that the reality our brains perceive can often have very little to do with the objective world around us. The reality-altering powers of the human brain affect everything we think, see, hear, and touch and every subsequent decision we make, including those involving education. So how does the subconscious mind affect education?

The Subconscious Mind and Learning
So how can the unconscious mind impede or enhance education? Gladwell presents a very poignant example in his book regarding the effect of racial identification on GRE results. In short, African American students performed significantly worse on the test when required to identify their race prior to starting. The simple act of stating their race primed their brains for failure by awakening a host of subconscious stereotypes about blacks performing poorly on standardized tests. With one simple checkbox requirement, these students’ entire future could have been sabotaged. This happens on every single standardized test, but also in other equally insidious ways in education. Here are a few examples:

These are a few of the obvious ways that the subconscious mind can affect student behavior and performance in education. Knowing that these underlying issues exist, how can educators address them to help students learn more effectively?

How Educators Can Use Students’ Subconscious Minds to Improve Learning
There are some tried and true educational methods that have been taught in teacher education programs for years with positive results:

  • Activating prior knowledge – A simple thing that well-trained educators do to help students get into a proper mindset for learning is to consciously work to reawaken existing knowledge and information that students should already possess. This can be as simple and overt as reviewing prior material and as subtle as introducing games that rely on prior knowledge in order for students to succeed. Doing these kinds of activities awakens existing neural pathways and primes the brain to strengthen those connections and make new ones.
  • Attention focusing activities- Similar to activating prior knowledge, helping students to focus their attention on learning and appropriate tasks will help prime their brains. While the elementary school tricks of rhythmic clapping or playing chimes can work in high school or a college classroom, they tend to be more comedic than effective in those contexts. A better strategy for educators at higher levels is to do something relevant but unexpected that captures student interest – this can include bringing in an unannounced guest speaker, offering rewards for participation, or role-playing.

In addition to these tried and true methods that prime students for paying attention and engaging in learning, some of the other, more subtle effects of the subconscious mind can be more challenging for educators to overcome.

  • Maximize student self-confidence – If students lack confidence in their academic abilities, as the Gladwell example in the introduction depicts, their potential for academic success plummets drastically. Managing what appears to be an impossible situation can be daunting for educators. The first step in avoiding unconscious booby-trapping of students’ confidence is to be conscious of your actions as the instructor. Take Gladwell’s example as a starting point and evaluate your actions, lesson plans, and other parts of your teaching in light of an understanding of the overwhelming effects of even small subconscious unrest.  There is no downside in helping your students to feel confident.
  •  Use the subconscious against itself – Knowing how the unconscious mind works and the effect that its manipulation can have on student confidence and self-image, gives educators a unique opportunity to use that power for good. In Blink, Gladwell presents another example of the subconscious mind in which suggestion leads to a physical manifestation of behavior and attitude (a word association game in which terms eliciting old age and ill health are interwoven causes participants to act old and tired). While such behavior would be entirely unethical outside of a controlled experiment, using a preponderance of positive, "smart" words in designing a test, for example, can help students feel more positive about their own academic ability during the exam.

Not every educator will read this post or be able to manage all of the countless subconscious factors that could negatively impact student learning. Ultimately, it is the learner’s responsibility to deal with the consequences of their own mental inner workings.

How Students Can Overcome Subconscious Limitations to Succeed in Education
In many ways the workings of the human subconscious are so complex and inaccessible that it is impossible for an individual to account for all of the unconscious traps that may arise in the course of an academic career. There are, however, things that can be done by learners to help prime their own brains for learning.

  • Eliminate distractions- Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is impossible. The human brain can only focus on one thing at a time. For some dramatic examples of this in action, check out the "Focus Pocus" episode of the National Geographic show Brain Games.

    One way that you can help to make sure that your brain is fully engaged with learning is to eliminate as many distractions, both environmental and mental when you are trying to focus on learning. This won’t eliminate every subconscious distraction, but it will help.
  • Use the power of positive thinking- Framing is one trick that can work to help you be positive in the face of any subconscious challenges to your academic aspirations. The way you choose to look at and portray the world and your place in it can have a pronounced effect on your subconscious mind and the way it interprets reality. Consciously portraying learning and education as helpful forces that will have a positive impact on your future will prime your brain to be more receptive to academic work and make it easier to remember and perform better consistently.
  • Consciously craft a strong self-image – Speaking from experience, as a former "jock" turned intellectual, I can tell you that the way you think you are eventually becomes the way you are. Having a positive self-image as a gifted academic and intellectual will make your subconscious believe that you are just that and it will subsequently interpret the world around you in that light.  This page from the Cleveland Clinic, "Fostering a Positive Self-Image," provides a number of tips that anyone can follow to build and maintain a positive view of themself.
  • Embrace metacognition- Metacognition is an old buzzword in education, but it is an important tool in any learner or educator’s arsenal that can have real effects on the subconscious working of the human brain. While the subconscious mind is not directly accessible to conscious thought processes such as metacognition, thinking about how and what you are thinking can influence the unconscious mind. As students, actively reflecting on your thought process, study habits that work or don’t work for you, or factors affecting your learning will prime the subconscious mind to fall in line with the world view and self-image you are creating through metacognitive consideration. Here are some tips from The Learning Coach on enacting a metacognitive approach to your education.
  • Make learning automatic – This article from Mind Power News characterizes a vast majority of the things that we do during any given day as unconscious processes. Driving for example, is an extremely complex activity that we must consciously learn to do well. However, after a certain point, much of the process becomes automatic. You have all experienced this – reaching a destination without consciously realizing that you just navigated a complex series of turns and obstacles without paying any conscious attention to them. Why not work on making learning that kind of automatic activity too? This will happen gradually over the course of a lifetime of academic effort, but you can expedite the process by following to points above: eliminating distractions; using the power of positive thinking; consciously crafting a strong self-image; and embracing metacognition. Doing these things will make learning an automatic response whenever you enter an educational setting or are presented with something to learn.

Whether you are an educator or a student the subconscious mind plays a major role in your teaching or learning. For the most part, these effects are below the surface of our comprehension, but that does not mean that they cannot be influenced by conscious processes. The subconscious is often viewed as a hindrance to learning, but employing some or all of the strategies outlined above can turn it into a positive force in your education. Taking some proactive steps to impose your conscious will on your subconscious will yield a lifetime of benefits on your academic performance.