Designing brain-compatible lessons requires attention to strategies and activities that honor what we know about attention, memory, the uniqueness of all students, and their learning preferences or st

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Designing brain-compatible lessons requires attention to strategies and activities that honor what we know about attention, memory, the uniqueness of all students, and their learning preferences or styles. Timing and sequence are important design elements. The items below should be part of every teacher’s tool kit.

Primacy effect is described by Sousa as follows: “During a learning episode, we remember best that which comes first, second best that which comes last, and least that which comes just past the middle” (Sousa, 2003, p. 88). He suggests teachers be sure to teach new material during the first ten minutes when retention is highest and use closure prior to the end of the lesson. An excellent way to make sense, teach meaning, and teach to all learning styles and modalities is to follow the natural learning cycle. Zull (2002) describes the function of the learning brain through four points in the natural learning cycle:

Brain FunctionBrain AnatomyConcrete experience (gathering)Sensory cortices (back of the brain)Reflective observationTemporal and integrative cortex (center of the brain)Abstract conceptualization (creation)Front integrative cortex (front of the brain)Active ExperimentationMotor cortices (top of the brain)

What still surprises many brain researchers is that teaching methods in public and private education, including colleges and universities, are still primarily individual and rote in nature, “both of which have been demonstrated again and again to be remarkably ineffective at generating changes in performance” (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).

Consider Zull’s model above. Essentially, the steps in the natural learning cycle are comprised of gathering information, reflection and insight formation based on that information, the creation of personalized ideas, and then active testing to determine validity.

Gathering Information

Gathering information occurs in the oldest part of the brain, the sensory cortices. This is where we gather, process and record information from sensory inputs. This part of the brain makes no attempt to evaluate data. It collects sensory information such as sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, and perception (Hebb, 1949). Unfortunately, much of what is presented in the classroom is focused almost entirely on the initial delivery of content and the gathering process. Very little attention is paid to aligning data presentation to the way the brain gathers information. In this situation, very little learning occurs.

There are two very important contexts in which we can effectively use the brain’s natural process for gathering data to improve learning:

  1. Presentation format: The greatest advantages come from using multiple forms of media and not relying heavily on any one form. The brain processes data in multiple formats and responds better to multiple interactions with data (Rose, 2014). When data is presented in a variety of formats including music, images, text, and video, learning is enhanced. Since each student is different, it may take time to understand what works best for individuals and groups. Some students are kinesthetic learners (tactile, benefiting from activity) more than auditory learners, while others may respond more favorably to visual inputs. For the whole classroom, multiple inputs far outweigh one single style of delivery.
  2. Content volume: Many teachers deliver too much information at one time. Students are best served when having to process between 1 and 4 “chunks” of information at a time. A chunk is a piece of information that supports a specific aspect of the learning objective. In psychology it is defined as “a familiar collection of more elementary units that have been inter-associated and stored in memory repeatedly and act as a coherent, integrated group when retrieved” (Tulving & Craik, 2000). More simply, providing a few pieces of related data that support your learning objective will be more successful than asking students to cram several topics at a time into their beleaguered brains.

Reflection and Insight

Reflection takes place in temporal lobes. Everyone experiences reflection although it is not always a conscious occurrence. For example, have you ever been reading a book, only to find that you have suddenly become aware that you are no longer reading, but instead thinking about ideas generated by what you have been reading?

Reflection is the process by which the brain begins to connect information from sensory inputs (Step 1) with existing knowledge/experiences/data and preexisting data relationships within the brain. Reflection is an essential component in the learning process, and must be accounted for in lesson planning. Consider it “time to think”. Without sufficient time to reflect, students will not retain necessary information. Learning will be shallow and temporary. While reflection is a natural process, it can also be prompted by relating the learning to real-life examples. This leads to insight: the relationship between the new information being taught, and what is already “known” by the student. This process requires uninterrupted time, so scheduling time for reflection and insight after the presentation of information is important in effective lesson planning. How much time will depend on how well you know your students, as well as the complexity of the material being presented.

Creation of Ideas

Step 3 in the natural learning cycle involves the creation of new ideas. The prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead) is where the brain holds working memory and executive functions such as planning and creative thinking. One of the benefits of small group work on physical projects such as creating a mural, or writing a song or poem based on the experiences from a class field trip, is that these types of activities allow for all of the first three steps of the natural learning cycle, prompting each one after the previous step. Students gather information, reflect on what it means to them, and engage their prefrontal cortex in creating an idea that they can then verbalize or visualize. It works because the learner is in control of the process rather than the teacher. Once instruction is provided, the student is in control of these steps and can carry them out in order. Interacting with others supports multiple sensory inputs, as other students provide their reactions and thoughts verbally and visually. The spoken work in a social setting is important to learning. Discussing information, particularly new information, with peers will often trigger the fourth step in the cycle.

Active Testing

The fourth step is where permanent memories are formed. Students don’t create permanent memories from the ideas of others, but only from their own ideas and experiences, and the use of methods such as comparing and contrasting to test them out and reach certainty. Social interaction, when combined with learning, enhances the process as students share and compare. While the student has personalized the idea in the third step of the cycle, he or she will test and confirm, plan and attempt, and restart the learning cycle when comparing their knowledge and actions to others. The brain is a social organ by nature. Curiosity cannot be fully satisfied without testing and application, so a book or the Internet are not suitable final destinations. They support and inform, but can only prompt active testing. In social interaction, learners expand their ideas, leading to a deeper understanding of the learning content.


Click on the resource link to download and complete the Brainstorming assignment.

Create your own version of the worksheet, using a table or bullet points to list the subheadings. Provide one or two paragraphs about what you would do in response to each of the scenarios outlined in the worksheet. Create a document in MS Word format (.doc or .docx) and use the tool provided below to upload a copy of your completed work.

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