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Learning and the Brain – Tips

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on Learning and the Brain.  It’s fascinating to learn from the brain scientists who study both the brain and its evolution over millions of years, to understand how we can make teaching and learning more effective.  Following are some of the notes and key learning points I gathered while participating in a session conducted by David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns.

Brain Facts

  • After 20-30 minutes of sitting, blood pools in your seat and your feet.
  • The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that does the learning.
  • We think better on our feet than seated because blood is circulating and activating the cerebrum and cerebellum.
  • Cerebellum (back of the head) is where long-term memory is stored (such as learned movements like walking or sports).
  • Movement lets you activate more information
  • Teachers and Trainers are “Brain Changers.” When people learn, their brain actually, physically changes.
  • Some are “slow learners” simply because they want to take more time to engage with the material
  • The brain is hardwired to do 2 things: 1) keep the owner alive (reflexive survival instincts); 2) propagate (the reflexive instinct to gather emotional data to meet the other sex).
  • People must feel 1) physically safe and 2) emotionally secure, before they can learn
  • The capacity of our working memory is going down.  According to multiple studies, we used to be able to remember 5-7 unrelated things; since 2005, it’s gone down to 3-4.
  • The brain cannot multitask.
  • Can only do two things at once if they use different parts of the brain. i.e.  can’t rotate foot clockwise while drawing a figure 8 with your right finger.
    • When a task is interrupted, and you go back to it, you have to build back up to your prior level of engagement and focus. (so, “multitasking” is less efficient)
  • Imprinting from working memory to long-term memory
    • Happens more easily if amygdala helps (emotional memory)
    • Must make SENSE
    • Must be MEANINGFUL to the person
    • Happens during REM SLEEP.  If sleep deprived and have less REM sleep, brain will have fewer opportunities to write information to long-term memory. For kids, in 8-9 hours, they’ll have 3-4 REM cycles
  • Impact of TESTS
    • Under stress, brain sends cortisol to the brain and the frontal lobe shuts down
    • Testing can destroy learning
  • Four Rs: Reading, wRiting, aRithmatic, Recess! – recess boosts attention and academic performance!  PE  Recess because it is structured.
  • Homework: elementary school – minimal or no benefit; middle school – minimal benefit; high school – decline in benefit if > 2hours. What DOES make a difference is FAMILY DINNER.
  •  Childhood is not something to “get through.” It has a purpose. Humans are immature for much longer than any other species.  Having a long development time gives children time to adapt to whatever they’ll need to be.


  • Set expectations for interactivity:  “you don’t want to sit for 8 hours and I don’t want you to either.”
  • Use pencil and paper. Writing things down is a kinesthetic activity that helps you remember.
  • “Get up and move” – at least 10 paces sends 15% more oxygen to the brain after 1 minute (this is why you stand up, walk away, and then hit your forehead and remember.)
  • Try the Touch, Talk, Walk approach to have a meaningful conversation with someone.
  • Walk while studying flashcards . . . it will help
  • Think-Share-Pair Technique:  Have learners write answers on their own.  Stand up. Walk at least 10 paces. Find a partner. Discuss the question standing up. (don’t sit and turn to your partner).
  • Give learners a worksheet and ask them to write down key points.
  • As people gather from a break, tell a joke.  As they gather, they’ll quiet down, and you’ll get them to laugh.
  • Ask everyone to think about a question on their own before you ask for responses. Otherwise, people stop thinking
  • Ask learners a personal question: What’s the best thing about your week so far? How are you feeling about the book? . . . then refer back and value those answers.
  • Curriculum: Less is more. Shorter is better. Think of 2 20-minute sessions, not 1 40-minute.
  • If people think mistakes yield judgment, they’ll resist making mistakes
  • Must put learning in context for it to be memorable – RELEVANCY!
  • Praise EFFORT NOT being “SMART” – smart is equated with natural ability

3 thoughts on “Learning and the Brain – Tips”

  1. stephen says:

    you guys really should add Twitter/LinkedIn buttons on each page for easy sharing. Great stuff but it could reach many more…

    1. Susan Landay says:

      Thanks for the comment! I’ll surely look into that. 🙂

  2. This article is very thought provoking for teachers – i.e the homework section! I enjoyed all the facts and figures and now things I have experienced make alot more sense

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