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Awesome Insights About Learning from Brain-Savvy Teens

Knowing how their brains learn helps students meet increasing school demands.

Knowing how their brains learn helps students meet increasing demands

Understanding the neuroscience of how their brains learn, and what influences its most successful acquisition and application of learning, is a powerful tool for helping students confront the increasing demands of school. This knowledge also better equips students, parents, and educators to recognize applications and implications from the rapidly expanding research. Further, these insights can enhance students' effectiveness, creativity, and enjoyment of learning. They also benefit by recognizing conditions, such as stress or frustration, that may have hindered them in reaching their full potentials in the past, but can be overcome by building their own brainpower as they achieve the success they seek.

Premission from photographer
Williams College students build skills while learning about their brains
Source: Permission from photographer

With my goal of building understanding of the neuroscience of learning with teens in college, I taught a course (total class time 24-hours over 4-weeks) to students at Williams College. In addition to class, each student conducted their own research investigations of neuroscience topics of their interest.

As you'll read, the insights they derived from class and their research projects fell into three categories. Some recognized practices used by their best teachers that made their learning particularly successful and correlated with the neuroscience of learning research they were learning about. Others found connections from the research to strategies they believe can be applied to improve their own future studying and learning habits. Most also found implications from the research they believe would be valuable strategies for educators and parents to try.

Their presentations and papers were extensive and supported by evidenced-based, valid research — the criteria of which we defined before they started. Here, I'll only summarize small segments from each project with edits made in the interest of brevity.

Understanding Stress and the Brain

Magdalen York's interest was related to how stress impacts learning. She felt that the ability to control stress could "not only improve learning but overall quality of life." She reviewed the response of the amygdala when it blocks input of learning into successful memory.

"Stress is often seen as a threat and therefore receives first priority into the brain, blocking off the pathway so other information, such as the equation the learner is attempting to memorize, is not able to be soaked up by the brain... Once the learner is able to identify that the child in the back of the class tapping their foot on the floor as a distraction and a source of stress, she is more likely to be able to set it aside, providing more room for wanted information to flow through the brain."

She also supported the use of reflective exercises followed by math learners with an outcome of reduced math stress and improved attitudes toward math. In one study she reviewed, math learners did a reflective writing exercise, described as an affirmation intervention, in which they periodically wrote personal values that were important and meaningful to them. One interpretation of the positive outcomes was that the reflections helped them focus on long-term goals and potentials and to reduce self-doubt.

Kirby Gordon's interest was to evaluate potential positive outcomes from stress. He proposed that "upon experiencing a highly stressful event, a learner can make the best of it by making a note of what can be learned from the stressful event. This learning could get clustered in with the other details of the emotional "flashbulb" memory of the event and provide a positive benefit from what might otherwise be quite an unpleasant experience."

Effective Feedback as a Brain Booster

Ivy Mwangi had prior experience working with a professor, Dr. Yael Arbel, about feedback learning and its potential relationship with the dopamine-reward response that sustains attentive engagement and motivation.

Although it is too early to draw conclusions, Ivy proposes there are some methods of feedback that may be of greater value in keeping children motivated and engaged, than others. "One such consideration is suggestive that the initial positive feedback has greater impact than subsequent feedback for a sustained task. A possible explanation might be that the dopamine-reward response is driven by awareness of a challenge being achieved. This implies that without progressive challenge, the drive may not sustain effort. Based on early implications from brain monitoring, it appears that appropriately increasing the complexity of the challenges and assignments given can enhance the learner's sustained engagement and motivation."

She proposed that utilizing the dopamine-motivated response could be a valuable tool in teaching and learning. She described the progressive achievement graph system used by one of her teachers. "My AP Chemistry teacher privately assigned everyone a color at the beginning of the year that would be used for a graph of all of their exam scores. The graph was completely anonymous because only you knew which line applied to you, based on the color you were assigned. The graph simply presented the trend of each student’s performance. This acted as a way to keep us motivated because the feedback not only represented what we did on the most recent exam but also how that exam influenced to our progress to our final grade goal. Thus, even if you got a 100 on one exam (positive feedback), the progressive graph kept you motivated to achieve another 100 so that your final grade was high."

Jessica Zong also investigated the research linked to the dopamine-reward response to progress feedback. She described how children's confidence and perseverance might be boosted through open-ended questions with repeated opportunities to make predictions with ongoing feedback as part of the instruction. One of her takeaways was to design lessons where all children could make low-risk predictions (e.g. clickers or holding up responses on whiteboards seen only by the teachers). They could then continue to revise their predictions as the lesson progressed and they acquired more understanding. With the lesson designed to build understanding, the planned outcome would allow children learning to read to remain engaged and motivated. Ultimately, she felt that with practice and success, the young readers could be guided to develop higher levels of comprehension and responses to the open-ended questions about what they read.


Nico Coloma-Cook sought to evaluate the construction of new memory, focusing especially on possible ways to improve memory through the brain's own patterning system of "connecting the new to the known." He wanted to know, "Are there ways of speeding up or improving one’s ability to connect the new to the known?"

Nico recognized the research support for the correlation, "between the frequency with which an individual sees the same image in their environment and the strength of the memory of this image within an individual’s brain."

Those insights gave him a new awareness of a strategy used by one of his teachers and that he will now employ independently for his own memory success. "After researching this learning strategy, I recalled what was said in class and what was used during my time in junior high when grasping new mathematical concepts. As I learned geometry in 8th grade, my teacher continually used this type of learning strategy— linking a new mathematical concept to a personal experience or every life— to get across the idea of geometrical proofs. For example, my teacher would show an everyday object on the whiteboard, objects ranging from a stop sign which was a regular polygon to a playground that formed unique and almost random sides and angles."

"I noticed that during the summer when I was stripped of a classroom setting I would continually look at shapes in my environment and just automatically use theorems to describe it. Through the images my teacher showed the class, I formed stronger neural connections between the geometrical theories and everyday objects, and due to this strategy, I am able to remember these mathematical concepts even today."

Sam Wischnewsky delved into the research focusing on how neuroplasticity relates to learning. One of his many insights emphasized the value on more integration of subjects. "One question my understanding of neuroplasticity poses is about the design of coursework orderings in highly scheduled educational spheres like high schools and elementary schools. It appears that it would be more successful if each subject could build on the information within that sphere the learners developed during the previous year so that the neural pathways that were previously developed could be even further reinforced. This begs the question of whether having such distinct separation of courses like chemistry, biology, and physics is preferable or whether it stunts learning by not interconnecting each of these topics so that similar neural pathways are activated in a consistent manner.

On some level, the learning benefits that are revealed by neuroplasticity are reminiscent of those revealed by modern research into short-term memory that highlights how memories are retained at a higher rate if they are related to previously held memories and can be linked to something that is extant in the hippocampus. Neuroplasticity research supports the same teaching methods, of linking memories and ideas across subjects, to promote more productive learning sessions for students."

Jessica Zong also investigated reading interventions for increased memory and understanding, especially for children with autism.

She described multiple studies and found support for a multisensory and cued approach. "Visual representations in the story seems to build on the finding in many autistic children regarding their strong visual thinking. From that standpoint, the connections between pictures, words, and sounds during their reading may facilitate their understanding of the content. She extended this concept to suggest that the use of pictures and visual cues in the classroom could provide more opportunities for children themselves to ask and answer questions in small group settings to further promote their reading success."

She further hypothesized that the multisensory approach that correlated with improvement in reading for these children could promote increased memory for other learners, including herself.

Henry McGrew investigated memory from the perspective of the impact of sleep. Among his conclusions he wrote, "Although sleep is one of the most highly debated, and least understood phenomena of human nature, its benefits cannot be negated, especially regarding memory.

Long-term memory requires anatomical changes (practice) for neurons to grow new synapses and synaptic connections. Each time a new memory is reactivated, it is etched more deeply into storage. During sleep, there is evidence that these connections between neurons may be getting stronger through replay. The consequences resulting from this sleep loss range from health issues to increased risks of error due to cognitive impairment."

Theresa Morley-McLaughlin researched the impact of technology on learning, attention, and memory. Part of her investigations into the impact of screen time before sleep further supported the correlations Henry made between sleep and memory. Her analysis of the research led her to propose interventions that could be beneficial to children now, even as more conclusive research studies are carried out.

"It has been said that people should not use screens directly before sleeping because the light emitted by screens results in a decrease in sleep quality. The truth of this statement, as well as the length of time one should supposedly go without using a screen before sleeping, are both contested."

"With this in mind, further research must be considered. If additional evidence supports the claim that the viewing screens before bed negatively impacts sleep quality, it would be advisable for teachers to consider assigning portions of homework that can be done without the use of a screen. Children could then complete their electronic assignments in the afternoon and save their reading, reviewing, or handwritten assignments for the evening. This would give children the opportunity to limit their screen exposure directly before sleeping. Given how critical sleep is for young children and teenagers, it will be vital to follow the research and plan accordingly for their developing brains now and in the future."

Maximizing learner's brainpower

When parents and educators give children and teens opportunities to understand how their brains learn and to grasp the potentials offered by this most valuable resource, they can maximize their children's learning and life success.

If we are attentive to what our children and students want, we'll be best able to guide them in building their knowledge through their interests. For example, one of Sam Wischnewsky's insights, pertaining to his topic of neuroplasticity, addressed the motivational benefits of understanding one's potential to build the brain he or she desires.

"The research about neuroplasticity allows for an alternate form of motivating learning. There is a common trope starting at very early ages of claiming that, 'I am not a math person, or I am not an English person.' The science behind neuroplasticity directly refutes these beliefs and suggests that we are simply whatever we choose to study most. The human mind is remarkable for its ability to learn and neuroplastic development appears to be the primary mechanism for that learning."

Sam's conclusion says it all, "If children are taught that their minds will literally change to become better at what they most persistently work at, practice, and use, they will be more comfortable to work at their weaknesses. There is no better motivator than to know that one’s effort truly does pay dividends."

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