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Instructional Practice

5 Ways to Get your Student’s Brains Ready for Learning

Written by Petra Claflin, TE Instructional Coach and IC Support Specialist

One theme that jumps out at me when I read or hear about different brain-based learningand its applications for education, is that how we feel during the learning process has a huge impact on our retention of the knowledge.  The stronger the emotion, the

stronger the retention of that moment.  And as educators, the feeling we want our students to have in our classrooms, is a positive one—excited, invested, nurtured, challenged, supported, intrigued, heard, motivated, energized, calm, happy, surprised, curious, etc.  Especially when we are new to the field and still struggling with how to make sure our lessons are really strong on a daily basis, what we can immediately do without much training, is try to make our students feel good while they’re with us so that they’re that much more likely to glean the important nuggets from our sometimes imperfect lessons.

With this is mind, here are a few tips for making sure there are lots of positive feelings flowing so that lots of brains are ready for learning!

1. Build relationships

Not only is this conveniently, the B in Brain, it is also the single strongest lever we have in moving our students forward.  Start today by choosing one student you struggle with and having a 1-2 minute (non-academic not behavior-related) conversation with them outside of class for the next 5 days.  You’ll be amazed how much more attentive and on task they are in class in a short amount of time.  If you’re clearly going out of your way to get to know them and be nice to them, it’s almost impossible for them to turn around and be grumbly and off task the next day in class.

2. Remove the threats

We’re well intentioned when we try to motivate students by saying, “If you don’t pass this test, you’ll fail for the year.”  In reality, though, we’re threatening them.  By prompting a strong emotion tied to the threat, they’ll definitely remember that negative moment, but maybe not the less emotional experiences that happened during class, ie: the content we taught.  Threats of this kind also chip away at our relationships with the students and so make them less receptive to us and what we’re teaching them.

3. Activate emotions

Once we’ve started eliminating threats (and any other negative language), focus on activating positive emotions in class.    This doesn’t mean students have to be having the time of their lives and you have to be an entertainer.  These can be little things:

  • Greeting students with a smile
  • Giving genuine, specific praise
  • Thanking students whenever possible
  • Making a joke (that’s not sarcastic)
  • Stickers J

4. Incorporate Choice

An easy way to raise investment and motivation is by incorporating choice whenever possible.  Easy ways to start incorporating choice include:

  • Allowing students to choose to do the odds or evens on a homework sheet
  • Asking a student who is often off task, “Where do you think you could sit today to help you stay focused?”
  • Asking a tutorial group, “What would be most helpful for you right now?  Watching me do an example or having you try one on your own first?”
  • After returning graded work, having students identify and choose which areas they need more help with (don’t worry, they can do the math as well as we can and will choose the right areas!)
  • Letting them choose topics for writing assignments or projects

5. eNgage the senses

We’re thinking about learning styles here, and also trying to activate multiple senses in a lesson.  Having strong visuals is definitely a must on a regular basis, but how about incorporating a smell, taste, touch, or sound?  Here are some fun ideas:

  • Associating a certain song with a topic of study.  At the beginning of each lesson on that topic, play a snippet of that song.  Or use a motivational song to get them pumped up on a test day.  Even better, put the steps to a process in song form and they’ll remember it forever!
  • Associate a certain scent/taste with a topic of study.  I had a fifth grade group one year that felt particularly negative about math, so to make it a little more fun, I incorporated scents.  When we were working in division, for example, they all dipped a popsicle stick into lemon extract and kept those at their desks while we worked.  We made a big show of inhaling the smell deeply at the beginning of the lesson to get in ‘division’ mode and then they also had the sticks on assessment days to trigger their memories of the lessons.  It was a fun way to make math positive that they looked forward to and maybe now, ten years later, a few of those kids automatically think about the steps of long division when they smell a lemon 🙂
  • Act it out!  Studying atoms?  Have them stand up and form an atom or molecule.  Politics?  Have them stand on different sides of the room for opposing viewpoints.  Shakespeare?  Act it out.  Integers?  Create a human number line.  Moving around makes it fun and ‘sticky’ for them.
  • “Feeling” the content, literally.  For spelling, I used to have my students spell out words with their fingers on each other’s backs and try to guess what their partner was spelling.  They got a little back scratch (and who doesn’t like a good back scratch?), which was fun, and they also had to either visualize what their partner was spelling or they were practicing spelling the word and literally feeling the spelling as they wrote it out.  Even my high school kids were into this one!

All of these ideas are low-prep, no-cost ways to add some positive energy into your classroom and make your kids a little happier to learn from you every day!

What other strategies do you use to make your students’ brains happy and ready to learn?



2 thoughts on “5 Ways to Get your Student’s Brains Ready for Learning

  1. This is FULL of strategies. Great post, Petra!

    Posted by nellagarciaurban | April 26, 2012, 11:31 am
  2. This is a fantastic post, Petra! I love how you took the large topic of brain based learning and made it concrete and PRACTICAL. The strategies you offered in the post are things that can easily be implemented by any teacher tomorrow – a true gem for those sitting down to lesson plan tonight!

    Posted by Jeanne Fruge-Rodriguez | April 26, 2012, 12:22 pm

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