Your Students Are Probably Forgetting What They’ve Learned. Here’s How to Help Them Lock It In.

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Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Last year at Drexel University, associate professor Eric Brewe led a team of researchers who compared the brains of students before and after they learned a specific physics concept. Beforehand, fMRI scans of the students who were confronted with a related physics problem showed activity in the parts of the brain associated with learning (unsurprising), but also those associated with imagination (which may not be what you’d pair with physics)! After a course on the topic at hand, though, the students’ brains changed. They still fired through the learning sections of the brain, but also through more complex regions associated with episodic memory and self-referential thinking. Brewe suggested that these changes reflect access to more strategic and problem-solving resources: in other words, learning the concept gave the students to access new areas of their minds that weren’t part of the picture before.

As the study suggests, there’s an apparent difference between how the brain deals with concepts and tasks as its learning them and how it deals with them once they’ve become familiar. Teachers are crucial when it comes to providing a roadmap for that journey. And one key approach for effective teachers is guided practice, which can be employed after direct instruction and memory strategies (such as spaced practice or retrieval practice) have helped build surface knowledge of the fundamentals. Guided practice deepens students’ knowledge and helps them understand how they’re learning, so that they don’t fall into the classic trap of remembering enough to pass a test and promptly forgetting everything they’ve learned five minutes later! It also helps you spot and address any misconceptions they may have.

The first intention of guided practice is to help students get better at a specific task. One way to do this is by providing worked examples or model answers, which can also be interleaved with questions. Being able to see these resources in the early stages of learning a new concept or skill reduces the demands placed on active working memory. By reducing the cognitive load in working memory, there is more spare cognitive capacity to commit the task to long-term memory. As students improve, you can reduce the number of worked examples or model answers, then stop providing them altogether.

Another powerful way to do this is through scaffolding. We’ve talked about scaffolding before: like the structures that hold up a partially constructed building before it’s completed, pedagogical scaffolding helps support students’ potential weak spots as they develop knowledge.

For example, a high school English teacher might invite students to bring in some key concept notes on an index card for an in-class paper-writing assignment, reducing the demands on their memory so that they can focus on the process of proper essay construction. An equation sheet for a physics quiz performs a similar function. These tools free up some spare cognitive capacity in order to learn. Always bear two things in mind about scaffolds: first, they must be temporary (you’ve got to remove them at some point, with the option to reintroduce them if students continue to struggle); secondly, they shouldn’t make the task easy (and should instead provide just the right amount of challenge).

The second intention of guided practice is metacognitive; in other words, it helps students become aware of the skills and strategies that they need in order to succeed at a given task. Some students are quite adept at figuring out what they’re doing right, but many others may need some help in order to do so.

Reflection prompts are a great way to support this second aim of guided practice. For example, a homework math packet could include a table that lists several fundamental skills incorporated into the exercises and invite students to place each skill in one of three columns: I’m struggling to learn this, I know this well, and I know this well enough to teach it to a friend. This self-ranking helps students identify where their current strengths and weaknesses are. Another option could be a few simple questions that students must answer as an “exit ticket” at the end of the day: What strategies did you use to complete the in-class assignment today? How well do you think it worked? What other strategies did your classmates use that might help you next time? Quite often, the magic of learning comes from reflection!

As students use guided practice in order to a) learn something and b) understand why and how they’re learning it, its third intention becomes clear: as teachers, we can better understand where they’re struggling, and how we can help address any misconceptions that are present. This feedback loop helps us decide whether we need to offer different scaffolds, reteach a concept to a particular student, or even reteach it to our entire class! It also tells us when students have mastered the concept and are ready for a bigger challenge—such as using their newly found knowledge and skills in a new context. In short, guided practice is a tool that operates on multiple levels, helping students truly integrate new learning into their long-term memory—and helping teachers become better and better at what we do.

For more on guided practice, see Barak Rosenshine’s piece, “Principles of Instruction,” American Educator, Spring 2012.

At the CTTL, we’re always trying to create durable, usable, flexible knowledge: any learner should be able to put their knowledge into action and employ it in different contexts. That goes for teachers, too! The CTTL’s newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, helps teachers infuse their classroom practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices.

Are You Limiting Your Students’ Learning? Here’s How the Best Intentions Go Wrong

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Photo by Lonely Planet on Unsplash

At the CTTL, we’re focused on using the best of Mind, Brain, and Education Science research to help teachers maximize their effectiveness and guide students toward their greatest potential. Doing that often means addressing what we like to call “Learning Myths”—those traditional bits of teaching wisdom that are often accepted without question, but aren’t always true. We also like to introduce new insight that can change the classroom for the better. In our Learning Myths series, we’ll explore true-or-false statements that affect teacher and student performance; for each, we’ll dive into the details that support the facts, leaving teachers with actionable knowledge that they can put to work right away.

True or False? Students will learn better if their teacher varies the modality of teaching to match each student’s preferred learning style, such as using kinesthetic means for kinesthetic learners and auditory means for auditory learners.

Answer: False! This is one of the most pervasive—and potentially damaging—Learning Myths out there. Many researchers have tried to prove that students learn best with personally tailored learning modalities, but there’s no evidence for it. In fact, it can even hinder learning! As is turns out, choosing a method of teaching should be based on the content to be taught, not the supposed preferences of a particular student. In fact, even talking to students about the idea of personal learning preferences can be detrimental.

How might teachers put this insight into action?

This Learning Myth is based on a widespread misunderstanding of Howard Gardner’s research on multiple intelligences. Somehow, the common (and mistaken) takeaway is that because each individual person has strengths and weaknesses, teachers should work to figure out how to customize their teaching methods to the strengths of each student. And many of us do so, with the best of intentions. But, in addition to demanding more than any one teacher should be asked to perform, this conclusion can actually hurt students by assuming that their brains are stuck where they are. And we know that’s not true!

The concept of neuroplasticity tells us that our brains are malleable, and that they change depending on what we ask of them. If students are never challenged to learn in a new way, they miss out on a huge ability to adapt and grow! As it turns out, Gardner is very clear and elegant in his conclusions: the important thing is to choose teaching modalities not based on who you want to teach, but what. Therefore, being a master of your content and understanding pedagogical approaches to teaching it is what matters, not becoming a person who can teach the same concept in six different ways. Not only is that exhausting, it also eats up planning time that could be used to help your students much more effectively! That said, it’s good to run a classroom that incorporates different modalities over time, so that students can be exposed to a variety  of approaches. There’s no need to pigeonhole a specific learner. (Curious about neuroplasticity? You can learn more about how it can show up in your classroom here.)

Of course, everyone has different abilities at a particular moment, but neuroplasticity dictates that these will change over time, with practice. That’s why knowing your students is such a crucial part of effective teaching. If you’re familiar with their individual journeys over time, you can predict when they might struggle. But that doesn’t mean that you should avoid challenging them! If you check in with them with a formative assessment and find that they need some help, no problem: just provide some scaffolding to help them when they need it. That’s very different than teaching five different lessons—and it acknowledges your students’ potential for resilience. It’s an opportunity to show them that even though they’ll surely encounter challenges throughout their educational career, they have the power to find strategies that will help them be successful.

This Learning Myth doesn’t just create misunderstandings for teachers. Once a student has been confined to a specific learning style enough times, it’s all too easy for her to adopt a fixed mindset—and create a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if she’s been told repeatedly that she’s a kinesthetic learner, she may shy away from engaging with anything that isn’t hands-on and avoid visual or verbal methods that may, in fact, be the best way to learn a particular concept. She might also develop learned helplessness, believing that she can’t learn unless her teacher provides a hands-on experience. It’s our job to counteract these ideas in our students, and to help them see that reality is far more nuanced than they’ve been led to believe.

As educators, our goal should not be to box students in, but rather to help them build self-confidence by providing them with a great toolkit of strategies—and the ability to choose the right ones at the right time. The idea of “playing to your strengths” can certainly lead to success in many contexts, but the classroom shouldn’t be a place where students avoid a challenge in order to play it safe. It should be a place for growth—both for our students’ brains, and for their self-knowledge. Our encouragement is a key part of that growth.

At the CTTL, we put our own advice into practice. That’s why our newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, incorporates a variety of learning modalities to support your growth as an educator. We help teachers infuse their classroom practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices.

Too Much Homework Hurts Your Students. Here’s What to Do Instead.

Homework Every NighPhoto by Daniel Chekalov on Unsplash

At the CTTL, we’re focused on using the best of Mind, Brain, and Education Science research to help teachers maximize their effectiveness and guide students toward their greatest potential. Doing that often means addressing what we like to call “Learning Myths”—those traditional bits of teaching wisdom that are often accepted without question, but aren’t always true. We also like to introduce new insight that can change the classroom for the better. In our Learning Myths series, we’ll explore true-or-false statements that affect teacher and student performance; for each, we’ll dive into the details that support the facts, leaving teachers with actionable knowledge that they can put to work right away.

True or False? Homework should be given every night, as this routine promotes learning.

Answer: False! Nightly homework is unnecessary—and can actually be harmful.

Homework for homework’s sake, or homework that’s not tied into the classroom experience, is a demotivating waste of your students’ time and energy. The Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit puts it this way: “Planned and focused activities are more beneficial than homework, which is more regular, but may be routine or not linked with what is being learned in class.”

How might teachers put this insight into action?

Homework, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. The key is to make sure that every homework assignment is both necessary and relevant—and leaves students with some time to rest and investigate other parts of their lives. Here are four key mindsets to adopt as an educator:

  • Resist the traditional wisdom that equates hardship with learning. Assigning constant homework is often tied into the idea that the more rigorous a class is, the better it is. However, according to research from Duke University’s Professor Harris Cooper, this belief is mistaken: “too much homework may diminish its effectiveness, or even become counterproductive.” A better guideline for homework, Cooper suggests, is to assign 1-2 hours of total homework in high school, and only up to 1 hour in junior high or middle school. This is based on the understanding that school-aged children are developing quickly in multiple realms of their lives; thus, family, outside interests, and sleep all take an unnecessary and damaging hit if students are spending their evenings on busy work. Even for high schoolers, more than two hours of homework was not associated with greater levels of achievement in Cooper’s study.
  • Remember that some assignments help learning more than others—and they tend to be simple, connected ones. Research suggests that the more open-ended and unstructured assignments are, the smaller the effect they have on learning. The best kind of homework is made of planned, focused activities that help reinforce what’s been happening in class. Using the spacing effect is one way to help students recall and remember what they’ve been learning: for example, this could include a combination of practice questions from what happened today, three days ago, and five days ago. (You can also consider extending this idea by integrating concepts and skills from other parts of your course into your homework materials). Another helpful approach is to assign an exercise that acts as a simple introduction to material that is about to be taught. In general, make sure that all at-home activities are a continuation of the story that’s playing out in class—in other words, that they’re tied into what happened before the assignment, as well as what will happen next.
  • When it comes to homework, stay flexible. Homework shouldn’t be used to teach complex new ideas and skills. Because it’s so important that homework is closely tied with current learning, it’s important to prepare to adjust your assignments on the fly: if you end up running out of time and can’t cover all of a planned subject on a given day, nix any homework that relies on it.  
  • Never use homework as a punishment. Homework should never be used as a disciplinary tool or a penalty. It’s important for students to know and trust that what they’re doing at home is a vital part of their learning.
  • Make sure that your students don’t get stuck before they begin. Teachers tend to under-appreciate one very significant problem when it comes to homework: often, students just don’t know how to do the assignment! Being confused by the instructions—and without the means to remedy the situation—is extremely demotivating. If you find (or suspect) that this might be a problem for your students, one helpful strategy is to give students a few minutes in class to begin their homework, so that you can address any clarifying questions that arise.

In order for students to become high academic achievers, they have to be learning in a way that challenges them at the right level—much like the porridge in the Goldilocks story, it’s got to be just right. Homework is a great tool, but it must be used wisely. Part of our role as teachers is to make sure that the time we ask our students to give us after they leave class is meaningful to their learning; otherwise, the stress and demotivation of “just because” homework can be detrimental to their well-being. As the CTTL’s Dr. Ian Kelleher advises, “The best homework assignments are just 20 minutes long, because those are the ones that the teacher has really planned out carefully.” Put simply: quality beats out quantity, every time.

Here at the CTTL, we’re all about quality over quantity. Case in point: our newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, helps teachers infuse their classroom practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices.

Typing Notes in Class: Fast, Easy, and (Usually) Totally Useless. Here’s Why.

Typing Notes Learning Myths Image

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

At the CTTL, we’re focused on using the best of Mind, Brain, and Education Science research to help teachers maximize their effectiveness and guide students toward their greatest potential. Doing that often means addressing what we like to call “Learning Myths”—those traditional bits of teaching wisdom that are often accepted without question, but aren’t always true. We also like to introduce new insight that can change the classroom for the better. In our Learning Myths series, we’ll explore true-or-false statements that affect teacher and student performance; for each, we’ll dive into the details that support the facts, leaving teachers with actionable knowledge that they can put to work right away.

True or False? Typing notes in class is just as effective as handwriting them.

Answer: False (for most people)!

When it comes to taking notes, as with so many other things, the truth is less than convenient: for most students, the easiest way isn’t the best way.

According to education writer David Didau, our ability to type doesn’t actually do us any favors in terms of note-taking. Because typing is so fast for most of us, we can copy down every word we hear in class. While this might seem helpful on the surface, the problem is that we’re not really processing what we’re hearing—and we retain less meaningful information.

“Because handwriting is slower,” Didau says, “we are forced to interpret and paraphrase what a speaker says instead of simply producing a transcript. This act of synthesis leads to better semantic processing, which means that schematic changes to long-term memory are likely to be taking place as notes are taken.” The act of making the task harder is the thing that helps it stick. That’s why, as teachers, we need to coach our students when it comes to study strategies: they’ll often naturally gravitate toward methods that feel easier, even if they’re less effective in the end. (Hint: for more ways to encourage better learning strategies, check out our last blog post!)

How might teachers put this insight into action?

For most students, encouraging handwritten notes gives them an ongoing opportunity to practice processing what they hear and determining how important each piece of information is.

In classrooms where computers are generally allowed, handwritten notes can be a tough sell to students. However, you can mitigate their fear of missing key information by asking them to practice with a safety net. Here are some ideas:

  • Ask students to take notes by hand for one session. Encourage them to use graphic elements like diagrams or mind mapping as they see fit—because the brain uses separate pathways for words and pictures, activating both at once provides an opportunity to integrate them (a process called dual coding). To alleviate potential worries about missing something important, assure them that you’ll hand out a set of printed-out class notes that they can review afterward.
  • Set each student up with a note-taking buddy. Provide time after the lesson for buddies to compare notes and share what they learned (and check to see what they might have missed).

In addition to increasing meaningful processing, recording notes by hand opens up an opportunity for metacognition. As students take notes, encourage self-inquiry: What strategies work best for me? What are my strengths and weaknesses? The best way to capture and interpret information may vary from subject to subject, so it’s helpful to encourage reflections like these over time.

On that note: of course, there are some exceptions to the handwritten-is-best rule. Students who struggle with motor control or dysgraphia, for example, should have the option to use whatever methods work best for them! And students with attention issues may learn best by not taking notes at all; their ideal option may be the opportunity to just listen, without the distraction of having to record anything. In short: the best choice may vary from student to student. Use your judgement and nuanced understanding of your students’ needs to help guide them forward.

Overall, note-taking is an excellent area in which to teach strategies alongside content—something we practice constantly at the CTTL. Keep the conversation going with your students as they try new things. Is this strategy working for you? How can you fine-tune your approach? Remind them that their brains are constantly growing and changing—and that they always have the power to increase their capacity for learning.

Looking for an extra serving of strategy with your content? Look no further—we’ve always got both! The CTTL’s newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, helps teachers infuse their classroom practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices.

Why Your Students Aren’t Really Learning—And How You Can Help

Spaced Learning Phoot

Caption: Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

We’ve all been there.

Our students complete a new task with no problems in the classroom. But, once they get home, their newfound skills fly out the window. The next day, our inquiries about their homework are met with downcast eyes and blank stares.

What’s going on here?

Put simply, we’re seeing what happens when knowledge doesn’t stick. The key to truly learning something—as opposed to going through the motions, only to lose the information before it’s retained—is understanding how knowledge makes it into our long-term memory.

As we learn, we’re activating two crucial parts of our brain: active working memory, which holds fewer things for shorter periods of time than we expect; and long-term memory, which is effectively limitless. Any thinking task we take on begins in our active working memory. From there, we combine information from our environment with knowledge that’s already in our long-term memory. Once we begin working those elements together, we’re able to write or revise the schema in our long-term memory, integrating our newfound understanding of the task at hand. That’s basically how we build knowledge.

Unfortunately, teachers (who are often under constant pressure to push more learning on their students in shorter periods of time) often fail to help students shepherd new knowledge into their long-term memory. That means that students can often hold onto it just long enough to grasp it in the immediate term, but fail to store it successfully for later recall. In short, their active working memory doesn’t have the capacity to write or revise the knowledge schema in their long-term memory.

That’s caused by a confluence of three factors: the cognitive load of the task itself; the extraneous cognitive load of the environment (which can include passive aspects of the student’s setting as well as the specific parameters set for the task’s completion, such as time pressure); and the inherent “germane load” needed to transfer the task into long-term memory.

There’s not much we can do about the germane load, so the levers we can pull as teachers show up in the first two factors. If the cognitive load of the task itself or the factors surrounding it are too great, we’ll create the conditions for our students to do the task, but not actually learn it.

Here’s how teachers can address these issues and help students retain their newfound knowledge.

  • First, help students manage the cognitive load of the tasks before them. As adults, we sometimes forget how taxing it was to learn various concepts as young people. A helpful analogy is driving: after having our license for many years, we can handle some kinds of multitasking (handing our children something in the backseat, changing the radio station) without breaking our concentration. But when we first learned, we likely felt completely stressed out when we had to do anything besides focus on the road! Be aware of when you might be asking your students to take on more than they can handle at a given time, and watch for signs of overwhelm.
  • Secondly, craft your curricula to help build knowledge—step by careful step. Make sure that key facts and skills are learned in a sequence that sets the stage for what comes next, and use formative assessment to check that current concepts are locked in before moving on. By creating a learning pathway that helps students store each lesson robustly in long-term memory, you’ll help them avoid having to juggle too many new things at once. With fewer demands on their active working memory, students are more likely to learn.
  • Thirdly, help create the best environmental and process-based conditions for learning. This includes the physical learning environment: minimizing distractions and eliminating any nonessential elements help to lighten the cognitive load. It also involves using efficient learning strategies that maximize the learning-to-load ratio. Under stress, out of habit, or simply because they don’t know another way, students will often gravitate to learning methods that might be instantly gratifying, but don’t serve their ability to retain and recall information in the long term. Luckily, you can offer alternatives that will help them truly understand what you’re trying to teach! (We’ll dive into that in just a moment.)

In order to help identify action-based strategies for you, we reviewed education researcher Barak Rosenshine’s “Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know.” Here are some of our favorite ideas for making sure that students retain what they’re learning:

  • Understand the idea of threshold concepts, and put them to use. Threshold concepts are gateways to new ways of thinking. They might be challenging to get your head around—but, once you understand them, new areas of knowing and doing open up. Some are large milestones that apply across subjects: for instance, understanding the need to use evidence to support your ideas. But many smaller examples show up in most lessons. We might call these hinges—because knowing, understanding, or being able to perform one key nugget within the lesson opens the door for all that comes next. For example, understanding a key passage in a book might help you reinterpret a character’s motives; understanding where the variables in a physics equation come from may help you solve a variety of different problems. In order to make learning easier with threshold concepts, follow these steps:
    1. Identify the threshold concepts of all sizes in your class.
    2. Figure out ways to walk your students through them.
    3. Watch out for common misconceptions and challenges.
    4. Keep some scaffoldings (teaching techniques that help students take progressive steps toward self-sufficiency when they’re having trouble) ready in your back pocket for students who need help.
    5. Use short formative assessments to check whether students have truly understood each threshold concept. (Read on for more ideas about this.)
  • Incorporate spaced practice into your classroom methods. In the face of a stressor like a test, it’s tempting for students to resort to terrible learning strategies like cramming and frantically rereading. Help them experience the usefulness of spaced practice—in other words, encourage them to let themselves forget a bit, so that remembering a given piece of knowledge is a process of retrieving, not just rereading until they find it. The mini-struggle that their brains experience is good for them! (The key here, of course, is allowing enough time in your lesson planning for that bit of forgetfulness to happen.) You can practice this with something as simple as flashcards: don’t let your students flip to the back immediately! Encourage them to embrace the struggle and let their brains work before they check their knowledge.
  • Plan your lessons to incorporate learning in small steps, with practice after each step. This helps build knowledge and store it in long-term memory, freeing up active working memory for higher-order thinking and learning.
  • Check in on your students’ understanding with formative assessment. Don’t assume that they’re getting it just because they’re not telling you otherwise! It’s easy to think that since you’ve taught it, they’ve learned it; however, that’s often not the case. You can use formative assessments to check in; that includes multiple strategies that involve finding out what students actually know and using those insights to chart next steps. You can verbally ask questions to the class, introduce a no-stakes pop quiz, or run a short reflection session for the last five minutes of class (“What’s one thing that sticks in your mind from our class today? What’s one thing that’s still puzzling you?”). From there, you’ll know what you need to review, help your students practice—or even totally reteach.
  • Connect new information to prior learning. Linking new learning to old helps create more durable knowledge, and can lessen the cognitive load burden in working memory. But, as expert learners ourselves, teachers can overestimate students’ ability to place new knowledge in context with what they already know. We can’t assume that students will make connections on their own, though they certainly might; developmentally, they’re still figuring out how to do it! Make sure to prompt those connections through questions and other formative assessments, deliberately crafting moments that help students activate and use their prior knowledge and skills.

 

The bottom line: truly understanding a new concept, rather than remembering it long enough to spit it back out for a test, is hard work. The good news is that you, as a teacher, can help students make the leap with research-informed strategies for successful learning! As our own Dr. Ian Kelleher puts it: “The most successful educators lean on research knowledge and classroom experience. It’s not that one is more important than the other, it’s that the magic happens at that intersection! Greatness will happen when there are more people playing in that interstitial space.” We invite you to join us there—and to see what magic can result.

Unsurprisingly, the knowledge-building methods we share in this article aren’t just for young learners! They’re great for adults, too—which is why we use them all in our newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global. Using spaced learning, formative assessment, threshold concepts, and more, we help teachers infuse their classroom practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices. In other words, we use the science of learning to teach the science of learning. Join us!

The Truth About Male vs. Female Brains—And What It Means For Your Students


Photo: NeONBRAND via Unsplash

At the CTTL, we’re focused on using the best of Mind, Brain, and Education Science research to help teachers maximize their effectiveness and guide students toward their greatest potential. Doing that often means addressing what we like to call “Learning Myths”—those traditional bits of teaching wisdom that are often accepted without question, but aren’t always true. We also like to introduce new insight that can change the classroom for the better. In our Learning Myths series, we’ll explore true-or-false statements that affect teacher and student performance; for each, we’ll dive into the details that support the facts, leaving teachers with actionable knowledge that they can put to work right away.

True or False? Male and female brains are significantly different.

Answer: False! Though we observe subtle physiological differences between male and female brains, there is no evidence that these result in any cognitive or learning differences. More importantly, the normal range of variation within a gender is much greater than the differences between them. We don’t have significant evidence that might direct us to approach learning or teaching differently for different genders. (This myth can sometimes stem from a misreading of very specific research in books like The Essential Difference: Men, Women, and the Extreme Male Brain, which focuses largely on patients with autism.)

How might teachers put this insight into action?

In order to help students thrive, regardless of gender, teachers can embrace the concept of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to change over the course of a person’s life. New neural connections form, strengthen, or are pruned away depending on what we ask the brain to do. New situations or environmental changes can lead to new kinds of brain activity; we can also make deliberate choices to strengthen existing neural pathways by practicing skills and building knowledge. Neuroplasticity has been shown to exist throughout adulthood, but young people are especially good at it; therefore, teachers have ample opportunity to build their students’ brains in the classroom.

Of course, some things are set from the start. Our genes do dictate part of our inherent cognitive strengths and weaknesses. With that in mind, you might think of neuroplasticity as an invitation to focus on the “nurture” half of the nature/nurture aspects of learning, even as you recognize that “nature” will have its say to some extent. Because each student must be treated as an individual case, and not grouped by gender, or any other social identifier, it’s important to remember that every young person has different learning needs. The important thing to remember is that every student can grow and change for the better; the path forward may take time to reveal itself, but you can help your students chart the course.

Making the most of neuroplasticity in your classroom is largely about mindset. Anytime we say “I am this kind of person, so I can do this, but I can’t do that,” we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. As educators, our job is to help our students avoid the trap of a fixed mindset and encourage them to ask questions like:

  • “This is hard, and I’m not great at it yet. What’s a good strategy to help me improve?
  • “I’m having a hard time finding the right strategy. Who can I turn to for help?” (Hopefully, the first person who comes to mind in response to the second question is you, the teacher!)

As human beings, we’re always evolving. No matter how hard we might try to put ourselves into categories, our stubborn individuality keeps showing up! Luckily, when it comes to learning, that gives us a whole world of possibilities—if we’re willing to stay open to them.

Hungry for more actionable insight? The CTTL’s newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, helps teachers infuse their classroom practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices.

The Key to a Super-Productive Classroom Just Might Surprise You

At the CTTL, we’re focused on using the best of Mind, Brain, and Education Science research to help teachers maximize their effectiveness and guide students toward their greatest potential. Doing that often means addressing what we like to call “Learning Myths”—those traditional bits of teaching wisdom that are often accepted without question, but aren’t always true. We also like to introduce new insight that can change the classroom for the better. In our Learning Myths series, we’ll explore true-or-false statements that affect teacher and student performance; for each, we’ll dive into the details that support the facts, leaving teachers with actionable knowledge that they can put to work right away.

True or False? Teaching students how to multitask will help them work more efficiently.

Answer: False! The human brain is actually unable to multitask. In reality, it switches back and forth between tasks—but there is a transaction cost each time it does so, which makes “multitasking” less efficient than focusing on one task at a time (or “monotasking”).

How can teachers put this insight into action?

Teachers are constantly trying to manage many inputs at once. It can be tough to resist attempting to multitask, especially as technology seeps into every aspect of our lives, and as productivity becomes more and more synonymous with our measurements of success. However, it’s crucial for teachers to learn how to focus on one thing at a time so that their students can follow suit. Otherwise, the switching costs can become overwhelming, impeding learning and exhausting a student’s active working memory as her mind scurries from one thing to another and back again.

We’ve collected some actionable ways for teachers to encourage focus and monotasking in the classroom:

  • Be careful not to give instructions to students while other things are happening (i.e. after the bell has rung and their friends are walking out the door, or after they’re already focused on a particular task you’ve assigned).
  • Avoid asking students to read and listen to you speaking at the same time. Let them engage in one kind of processing at a time. (Using multiple modalities within one kind of processing, i.e. showing pictures next to text, is okay.)
  • Figure out what’s really important, communicate that importance to your students, and engage them in paying attention to that one thing while you’re teaching it. Students don’t learn unless they engage, and they’re more likely to do so when they understand the weight of a particular lesson.
  • Be critical about how you use technology in the classroom. Tech can open up a huge range of knowledge and experiences for students, but it can also contribute to dividing their attention. Make sure that your tools don’t encourage scattered brains!

Hungry for more actionable insight? The CTTL’s newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, helps teachers infuse their classroom practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices. (Yes, we’re taking our own advice and using technology to help you monotask!)