Teaching Tip #8: Helping students use their brains

In honor of Brain Awareness week, this week’s teaching tip asks the question:  how is what you do in the classroom affecting your students’ brains?

Learning is a physical act.  Some neural connections become stronger and others weaken or disappear as new experiences literally shape the brain.  In The Art of Changing the Brain, biologist James Zull does a fascinating job of describing what we know about brain processes and how this knowledge relates to teaching and learning.

Zull describes four cortical processing areas:  sensory, temporal integrative, frontal integrative and motor, and he links the functions of each of these areas to the four phases of the Kolb experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984).

Kolb’s Learning Cycle and Brain Processes

  • The first of Kolb’s phases, concrete experience, is the acquisition of new material.  For example, I read a book, watch a video or listen to a lecture.  Zull connects this phase to the sensory cortex functions of retrieving and processing sensory data.
  • Reflective observation is Kolb’s second phase, which Zull relates to the temporal integrative cortex.  During this phase, learners relate the new experience they just had to existing experiences stored as neuronal networks in memory.  Now, I compare what I just experienced to what I already know and remember.  Learners need time to reflect on what they have been exposed to in order to activate these deeper learning processes. Otherwise new information remains unconnected to existing structures in memory and quickly disappears.
  • At the abstract hypothesis stage, the frontal integrative cortex becomes involved as students try to integrate and transform what they have experienced and what they already know into a plan, a conclusion, an idea or a product.  Learners need encouragement and support to make this transition. They also need motivation.  Zull points out the importance of engaging the pleasure centers in the brain to enhance intrinsic motivation.  Engaging problems and interesting applications of knowledge help to awaken pleasure and interest in the topic being studied.
  • During active testing learners use their motor cortex to do something concrete with the results of their phase 3 thinking.  Taking a test, writing a paper or creating a new work all involve active testing.   Finally, this product can become the basis for a phase 1 experience and the cycle begins again. 

Traditional classrooms tend to go from Phase 1 (presenting material through lecture or reading) right to Phase 4 (testing).  Zull advocates making  Phases 2 and 3 more explicit and intentional in order to  deepen learning.  How can we do this?

From Phase 1 to Phase 2:  Giving students time to reflect on their learning is important – a good reason to develop a syllabus that does not overwhelm students with so much new information that they cannot reasonably process it all.  Developing assignments that prompt reflection such as reader’s logs or writing prompts that specifically ask students to relate new information to what they already knew about the topic is also helpful.  Assessing student’s concepts (and misconceptions) about a topic prior to presenting new knowledge also gives you the basis for an assignment where students can compare what they thought before with what the new information tells them.

From Phase 2 to Phase 3:  Now that students have had time to reflect on their experience, what new questions can they ask?  What working hypotheses can they generate?  How can they apply this information to a situation?  How can they make decisions using this information?  As students transform information into something useful to them, their new neuronal connections are reinforced and the learning is “stickier”.   Assignments that specifically ask students to make take this step, and problems that are engaging enough to make them want to do so help in this phase.  Because students’ brains are different, what activates their pleasure centers is different as well, which argues for a range of interesting options for phase 3 assignments.

From Phase 3 to Phase 4:  Once students have reflected, analyzed and created in phases 2 and 3, they need active ways to test their new knowledge. This can be a traditional written test or paper, a debate, a research or thought project, or any other activity that requires students to actually write, speak or act. Clearly, from Zull & Kolb’s standpoint, this testing should be more than just repeating disconnected knowledge from Phase 1.  Application, analysis, independent projects and creative works all demonstrate the students’ new neural connections while strengthening them still further.

Now that you have encountered a small amount of new knowledge (I hope), how would Zull and Kolb tell you to proceed?

  • Reflect on it:  How does this information fit with your experiences in the classroom, or as a learner yourself?  Where do you agree or disagree?
  • Use it:  How could you try out some of these ideas in your classroom?  Change an assignment?  Focus a class discussion differently? Ask for a reader’s response to a text?
  • Test it:  If you made a change, what happened?  Was it what you expected? How does it change what you thought at the beginning of this process?  Now you’re back to Phase 1 again, but with a deeper understanding.

This is a fairly simplistic description of Zull’s arguments, and leaves out many of the interesting points he makes, the good stories he tells, and some of the gaps in his arguments.  For a more detailed review of the book, check out Pierce Howard’s review at  http://www.dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=2320.  Or, even better, read the book!  We have a copy at the CTE in Rowley you may borrow, or you can get copies through the library.

Kolb,D.A. (1984). Experiential learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Zull, J.E. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Sterling, VA:Stylus.


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