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AAround 86 billion brain cells contract inside your teen’s skull, communicating through 150 trillion synapses. So what’s the excuse? Why can’t high school students remember the Treaty of Versailles, conjugate Spanish verbs or decipher the periodic table?
Why don’t their stupid neurons learn better? What’s wrong?
The problem, learning scientists say, isn’t that teenagers are lazy or not bright. Instead, it may have a lot more to do with how they are taught. Consider what a typical high school classroom looks like: students sit passively in rows as they listen to teachers speak in front of the class. Then they go home to prepare for a test. Once the test is done, they forget the majority of the material within a few days. Rinse and repeat. What good is it if they don’t really learn what they are taught?
The science of learning, based on our understanding of neuroscience, argues that many traditional teaching strategies fail to take into account how an adolescent’s brain works. Recent discoveries in brain-based learning are found to not only energize high school students, but also help teens absorb and retain information.
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According to neurologist and educator Judy Willis, co-author of Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from Neuroscience and the Classroom. “The demands placed on students stifle their natural curiosity and joy in learning,” says Willis.
Brain scientists suggest that students absorb information better if they work in what’s called a flow state. This state of mind is achieved when their consciousness is fully “in the zone”, fully focused on activities they find so enjoyable that time flies and all distractions disappear. Try these brain-based learning strategies and explore skills that can help teens enter that open state of more productive and enjoyable learning.
1 Interrupt the lesson
Long lectures, an indigestible staple of high school school diets, are one of the best examples, and worst offenders, of how old-fashioned teaching methods don’t work for teenage brains. What, exactly, is wrong with uninterrupted lectures with no breaks or participation, other than a 10-minute question and answer period just before the bell rings? A meta-analysis of 225 studies conducted at the University of Washington found that students in long-duration classes were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in active-learning classes, and exam scores were 6% higher in classes active learning.
Long lectures hinder students’ comprehension because after 10 minutes, the human brain’s ability to remember facts and concepts rapidly declines. Teens need a “brain break” when they’re overstimulated, says neuroscientist Willis. The stress, frustration and boredom of listening and trying to take in a huge amount of new information in a long lecture often shuts down the teen’s brain, blocking absorption and learning.
Eric Jensen, author of Brain-based learning: the new teaching paradigm, advises teachers to strategically interrupt their lessons with what he calls “engagement tools” to keep their students engaged and energized. To be effective, he says, engagement tools need to be used every three minutes, employing – among dozens of techniques he recommends – everything from revealing demonstrations and props to call-and-response games and interactions with classmates.
2 We won’t forget… what?
Memorization is necessary for learning, but many old-school methods don’t work, according to learning scientists. University of Washington Research concluded that student rereading of textbooks and notes is an ineffective memorization technique.
Much better strategies use flashcards and self-quizzes, such as asking you potential essay questions or inventing math and science problems to solve. Scientists also advise students to use diagrams and flowcharts to relate new information they learn to material they already understand. New and old knowledge should always be connected, says Willis, because familiarity increases recall. How can this happen? The brain’s recognition of a single word activates and warms up memory patterns in the cerebral cortex, creating the stress-reducing “I remember this” feeling.
Willis believes that hands-on, non-stakes, non-graded classroom tests also encourage memorization, as passing the tests gives students a “really good release of dopamine, bathing the brain in deep satisfaction so they want to do it again.”
3 Practice makes learning brain-based
Repetition is often considered the most coma-inducing method of remembering information. Even so, learning the same material over and over and over (and over and over again) keeps the brain interested if done correctly. The trick, According to research, is to use new methods of memorization which make it possible to perpetuate learning. “The hippocampus of the brain [which has a major role in learning and memory] prioritizes the discovery and processing of new information,” says Willis. “And then, once you’ve heard it, you want to connect the new information to what’s already known.”
Turn the material into a nursery rhyme or song, have students create posters, or work alone or with a partner to create fun memory devices. Rewards such as prizes and positive appeals are also great ways to encourage students to put effort into rote memorization. Science? Like a video game, rewards light up their brains with a satisfying “bingo” dopamine hit.
4 Break it down and get active
Two additional successes memorization strategies multiply and active learning. Slicing is, quite simply, a technique that breaks down large amounts of content into smaller categories, making each “chunk” easier to process and remember.
As the name suggests, active learning is a pedagogical approach that actively engages the student in his or her education. A survey of biochemistry students at UC Santa Barbara found that those enrolled in the active learning program had consistent and statistically higher test scores. Examples of active learning include role plays, group projects, peer teaching, debates, and student demonstrations followed by class discussion.
5 Our brains can grow like muscles
growth mindset, first written by Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, is the recognition that our brain’s ability to learn is not static, nor is it destined to be intelligent or unintelligent. On the contrary, the plasticity of the brain allows our cognitive powers to strengthen as we use them.
Teachers who emphasize the growth mindset can help teens develop their intelligence, making them realize that learning will make them smarter. In Teaching with poverty in mindauthor Eric Jensen describes how a growth mindset has proven particularly beneficial for students from poor families.
6 Use body brain boosters
Brain scientists know the body is closely related to the brain. Playing music, exercising, eating well and meditating improve the brain’s abilities. “A lot of recent research in particular points to a stronger case for physical activity and sports,” says Jensen. “Our challenge, however, is that many teachers say they don’t have time for this.” Any advice for parents? Encourage your high school student to participate in these brain-stimulating activities outside of the classroom, which will improve their academic performance.
Sleep is another activity that stimulates the mind it is particularly useful. (But not recommended in school!) “Eight to 10 hours a day is good for teenagers,” says Willis, who points out that more sleep is crucial for healthy cognitive function. “The first cycles of sleep are superficial. Late sleep is the most important. It is then that the memory is integrated.
Teenagers Often Resist Sleep, But Parents Can Help Gently separating them from their electronic devices, going to bed earlier themselves and quasi-Ben Franklin rapping: “Going to bed early makes us glow when we wake up. My teenagers will be healthy, rich and wise.
This article is part of GreatSchool’s Transform High School Seriesa collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.
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