The Often-Overlooked Element That Can Transform Your Classroom: Emotions

Emotions blog

Photo by S&B Vonlanthen 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? The emotional and cognitive areas of the brain are highly interlinked, so emotional factors like stress, anxiety, happiness, motivation, and positive relationships need to be considered when thinking about ways to improve learning.  

Answer: True. Emotion recruits many of the same areas of the brain used for learning. When a student has a learning experience, emotion and cognition operate seamlessly in the brain. Learning is improved when teachers consider each student’s emotional needs.

When many of us first thought about teaching as a career, it’s likely that we thought of the job as mostly subject-based: we’d become experts in something, and then impart our wisdom onto our students. Voilá! There’s one important piece that we likely didn’t think much about, though: engaging with our students’ emotions.

As a profession, we’re learning more and more about how the brain operates. We now know that cognitive and emotional systems are highly interconnected. Learning is an inherently emotional experience, which means that we can harness positive emotions to help students in the classroom—but we’ve also got to be aware that negative emotions can impede students’ ability to learn.

You’ll often hear talk about a “whole child” approach to education, or the “whole child school experience.” These terms, and the practices behind them, come from a growing recognition that students’ ability to learn is constantly impacted by their surroundings. Physical and mental health, environment, community, relationships, and various kinds of development—social, emotional, and identity—matter too.

If we don’t take those factors into account, we are creating unnecessary barriers to learning. If we do plan education with those factors as part of the necessary ingredients for learning, we can create schools where all students can thrive—in combination with high-quality teachers and effective pedagogy, of course.

So, how do we embrace the emotional factors that help our students learn? Here are some ideas:

  • Remember that relationships really matter in school. Take the time to get to know your students and understand their interests. When they feel seen, they’ll be more connected to you and face fewer obstacles in their learning. University of Ghent professor Richard Ryan puts it this way: “‘My teacher likes me’ is the cheapest intervention in education.”
  • Help your students feel that they belong in your classroom and your school. Research from Dr. David Yeager of UT Austin has shown that a simple “belonging intervention” created positive impact on everything from academic measures to involvement in clubs to health visits—especially for first-generation and minority students. It can help mitigate students’ worries that they may not be able to be successful in a given institution, reassuring them instead that everyone struggles at some point—and that they’re in a good place to work through their own struggles. One way to support your students’ sense of belonging: for each one, identify one personal strength and one way in which they add something valuable to the school community. Then, make sure they know that you recognize and celebrate what they bring to the table.
  • Simple, but effective: Greet your students by names every day. (You don’t need to make a big production of this; we merely mean that you can use their names as you see them and say hello in your classroom or around the school.) And make sure you’re pronouncing them correctly—mispronouncing one person’s name can actually upset many people in the class. When you say a student’s name correctly, you’re telling them that their relationship with you is important to you. Ideally, every student at your school should hear their name spoken aloud by an adult at least once a day.
  • According to Dr. Jack Shonkoff at Harvard, some degree of stress is necessary for building a healthy stress response system (we call this eustress)—but too much can have negative mental and physical health consequences, in addition to decreasing learning potential. To keep stress under control, make sure that you build downtime into the rhythm of your teaching (and the overall school day, which includes a reasonable amount of quality homework). Constant stress with no breaks will wear down your students.

Your students are undergoing intense growth during their school years: physical, social, and emotional. Their relationships with you can be pivotal to their development. Depending on their situations at home, they may actually spend more quality time with you than they do with their parents! This gives you a powerful opportunity to help shape their learning, sense of belonging, and self-regard—and even small changes can make a significant difference.

Here at the CTTL, we love helping teachers bring their best selves to the classroom. 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.

What We Were Up To at the 2019 Science of Teaching and School Leadership Academy

Sheep Brain Dissection

Every year at our Science of Teaching and School Leadership Academy, we gather hundreds of educators together (this year from 19 states and nine countries) with the shared goal of using insights from research on the science of learning to make us better — every day, in every class, for every child. Better teachers mean better outcomes. We take findings mostly from cognitive science and psychology, put them into a form that educators find digestible, and help teachers and school leaders find ways to translate them into every day actions. We’re always evolving, and every Academy builds on our experience the year before. 

Early in our journey to create the Academy, we reorganized the wealth of academic information in the multidisciplinary field of Mind, Brain and Education (MBE) in a way that works for teachers, remixing it in a way that would never show up in an education journal. For example, we created bins titled, “Move beyond lecture” and “Combine joy and rigor.” But this is an ever-evolving work in progress, and each year’s Academy, just like one of the classes we teach, is refreshed and revised. And, more importantly, new people coming to the Academy breathe new life into it. The new juxtapositions this brings help us see things with fresh eyes. 

As we look back on this year’s Academy, we’d love to share some of the themes that emerged from our time together. Read on for a glimpse into what we were up to—and some simple ideas that can help your classroom today. 

Caiseal Corkran

Easy-to-Implement, Researched-Backed Strategies 

It’s hard for teachers to figure out what’s truly helpful for students, and what’s not. Some “old chestnuts” of teaching are indeed supported by the research, but others need to be tweaked, replaced or scrapped. At the Academy, we help teachers examine and revise their current practice. For example:

  • When giving feedback to students, it’s important to give them an opportunity to work on it sooner rather than later. If they can’t put their new knowledge into practice quickly, they’ll often lose the gist of your feedback. So many hours of hard work by teachers is essentially wasted because they do not give even 10 minutes of class time for students to immediately work on the feedback that took, often, hours to produce.
  • It’s crucial to teach learning strategies alongside subject matter. Elementary teachers tend to do this well, but we often lose the practice with older students. It’s always important not to just teach what a student needs to know, but how they can learn, recall, and use that knowledge. This is true in all subjects, even the most advanced. For example, students in AP Biology, who may one day find themselves in medical school, benefit from developing a really robust set of memory strategies that they know work for them.

Direct Instruction + Time for Application & Reflection = Relevance

The Academy has general sessions for the entire cohort, but we also break up into “translation groups” that can help teachers address their specific concerns and challenges. In these breakout sessions, we cover some content via direct instruction, and then provide time for reflection. Mentors work with groups of 12-15 teachers, working collaboratively to figure out how to put new ideas to work for their students. And, just as we often ask our students to do, we ask ourselves, “What should I keep doing, start doing, or stop doing?” 

We believe that the real magic happens when we can prepare teachers to work in their own spaces—where they have knowledge, mindset, and confidence to figure out how they can put their Academy experience to work in a nuanced way. A way that works for their subject, their kids in their community, and with their personal voice as a teacher. Research backs this up: context-dependent factors often determine whether a strategy will work or not work. That’s why we provide space for teachers to discuss their individual experiences, and help them find ways to make the promising principles from MBE work for them.

Relationships: The Secret Sauce of Successful Classrooms

Strong teacher-student relationships underpin a huge portion of the strategies we explore at the Academy. They play a role in mindset research, theories of belonging, balancing stress, and how students receive feedback, among others—all of which are crucial in a student’s long-term educational experience, all of which affect school outcomes.

Similarly, strong relationships with other educators help us continuously improve. We focus on creating those bonds during Academy week—many participants are from very different kinds of schools and organizations, and rarely find themselves in the same room otherwise. 

Getting Students to “Think Hard”

When Rob Coe, former professor at Durham University in the UK, was asked about his theory of learning, he answered, “Learning happens when you think hard.” At first, this might seem vague or oversimplified, as Rob immediately acknowledged when he first said it, but it’s true! When students think hard, they learn—through fundamental, physiological changes in their brains. It actually leads to some important questions for teachers to ask: 

  • Where in this lesson will my students need to think hard? 
  • How do we keep thinking hard at the top of students’ agendas? 
  • How do we get them over the hurdle of resistance to doing difficult things? Some answers to that last question include: 
    • Adding real-world relevance to our assignments
    • Helping students see the purpose of each activity, especially homework
    • Teaching and assessing in multiple modalities
    • Offering carefully constrained elements of choice at times—and some guidance to choose well
    • Balance stress (some stress helps learning; lots does not)
    • Helping students feel that they belong in our schools and can be successful

One of our favorite things about the Academy is that it’s a tangible way for us to see the impact of our work and be reminded of our purpose. From teachers to school leaders, to system-level administrators to the student interns who are essential voices in every session of the Academy, we love seeing the unique mix of ideas traded among all the different stakeholders in education. Every year is an adventure, every year makes us better, every year grows our confidence that all schools can put the science of learning to work.  

Here at the CTTL, we offer PD to teachers in ways that fit their classrooms and their lives. Neuroteach Global helps teachers infuse their practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices.

The One Skillset That Will Help Your Students Focus, Get Organized, and Beat Overwhelm

Executive Functioning.png

Photo by Estée Janssens 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? All students, even the strongest ones, can benefit from additional training in executive functioning.

Answer: True! Executive functioning (or EF) is often described as the “air traffic control tower of the brain,” guiding different mental resources to address whatever is at hand. EF relies on three types of brain function:

  • Working memory (for more on that, check out our previous blog post!)
  • Mental flexibility
  • Self-control

The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University adds the following context: “Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skillset to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”

That quote raises the first mistake people often make with EF, which is to think of it as a single skill that a student could be good or bad at. Rather, it is a skillset, including things like:

  • Setting goals
  • Holding information in working memory while it’s processed
  • Prioritizing tasks
  • Filtering distractions

A student’s proficiency will vary throughout these skills—and a certain skill might be more easily used in one task or class than another. So we need to be specific—which skills are strong for a particular student? What gives them a challenge?

Happily for teachers, the part of the brain largely responsible for EF—the prefrontal cortex—is still developing into our mid-20’s, which means that there’s great potential for improvement for all of our students, even those who are already performing well academically. It’s our job to encourage them to keep learning and practicing these skills, always seeing themselves as a work in progress.

That encouragement is important because, as any human will tell you, life can get overwhelming pretty fast. Students have a lot to balance, and it can be tempting to just give up on trying to organize and execute tasks. But you can offer tangible ideas that can help them, such as:

  • Listing out concrete steps that will help them complete a given task, and showing them to someone else to see if they can offer helpful feedback
  • Using a graphic organizing technique, such as mind mapping (either on paper or online), to make sense of their thoughts, plan a project, or outline a paper—which gives their working memory a break
  • Taking a break and going for a walk or listening to a good song—choosing a healthy, pleasurable way to give your brain a rest
  • Designing a project so that it is split into manageable chunks with check-in or accountability points along the way
  • Practicing self-monitoring at different points throughout a project before the final due date so they can check in to see if they’re on track (you can guide them with a checklist or simple rubric to fill in)

You can also create a space in your classroom where students can go if they need a minute to catch their breath: just a comfortable place with a beanbag chair and a blanket can help. Having a quiet fidget toy on hand, such as thinking putty or another manipulative object, can provide a good mental break.

Some research suggests that it may be impossible to significantly increase an individual student’s EF ability, as there’s no evidence to prove that working memory capacity can be significantly improved. So, our focus should be providing tools that help students use what they’ve got in a more meaningful, effective way. That’s not limited to processes directly related to schoolwork, either. Some other important tools include:

  • Anything that helps students handle social or emotional stress, and strategies for sleeping better—this could include meditation or other mindfulness techniques, putting limits on screen time, exercise, journaling, or other nighttime rituals that help them wind down
  • Strategies for physical organization that can help them keep track of the things they need to be successful in their binders, backpacks, or lockers—and periodic check-ins to see how their systems are holding up

Overall, it’s important to go beyond just saying “executive functioning” and name the skills students are doing well or struggling with. We have to help all students see that their ability to manage their physical environment, their emotional needs, and their attention on their work is an important part of being a good student. Executive functioning is a set of skills that are developed over a long period of time, so getting students to mindfully start that journey is key—as is reminding them that the goal is constant improvement, not automatic perfection.

Here at the CTTL, we love putting our EF skills into practice—particularly breaking down big goals into manageable chunks. 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.

How to Take Metacognition to the Next Level in Your Classroom

Reflection and Metacognition

Photo by Nikhita S on Unsplash

In our last post, we laid out a basic primer on metacognition: what it is, how it helps students, and how you can integrate it into your classroom in order to build your students’ skills over their lifetimes. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of metacognition and haven’t read that post, we suggest that you take a look at it before you read this one.

Now that we know what metacognition is and understand some basic building blocks for encouraging our students’ metacognitive skills in class, let’s dive into some more detail.

As your students approach a task, they can put their metacognitive skills to work in three key phases: planning, monitoring, and evaluation. Each phase presents an opportunity to help them better understand their learning processes and put their skills to use at higher levels. Here’s how:

  • The planning phase: Once students understand what you’re asking of them, they need to figure out how to take the first step toward the challenge.
    • Students almost always have prior knowledge and skills that they can bring to bear for a certain task. One problem is that students often don’t realize they have it. Another problem, as Graham Nuthall points out in his book The Hidden Lives of Learners, is that their knowledge usually doesn’t completely overlap with the peer sitting next to them. Therefore, you’re rarely dealing with a group of young people who are coming to a problem from the same place. But, with the right activities, you can use this diversity of understanding to your advantage.
    • You can help everyone get on the same page with simple tasks that help them activate relevant prior knowledge:
      • A straightforward class discussion: ask students to contribute relevant facts to a list that you make on the board
      • A 1-2 minute free write session: ask your students to write down what they know about the subject at hand and share their findings with a partner (also known as a “think-pair-share”)
      • A class brainstorm: ask students to add as many words as they can to a list of terms that relate to a given topic (i.e. the year 1776, or Marie Curie), and then use that list to kickstart further discussion
    • At some point in the planning phase, students will shift from planning their thinking to planning their doing: i.e. preparing to take an action they’re probably fairly familiar with, like writing a paper or solving a math problem. You can help them identify successful strategies from the past by:
      • Showing them an analogue with a worked example
      • Helping them through a similar task with guided practice
      • Prompting elaborative interrogation and self-explanation to help them identify previous facts and processes that can help them in the present moment
    • The monitoring phase: This happens when students can pay attention to the progress they’re making when they’re in the middle of a task—often quite a challenge. We often overestimate students’ ability to do this independently. But that’s not a “problem” as such; it’s just where the brains of younger people are developmentally.
      • You can help your students by identifying some helpful questions, such as:
        • “How is this strategy working for me?”
        • “Am I on a path to success?”
        • “What changes should I make, if any?”
        • “Are there strategies that others are trying that might work for me?”
        • “Would it help me to ask a question or talk to anyone?”
      • Be sure to remind students about the importance of asking these questions as they go—and remind them in the moment. Remember, part of this process is to train students to be independent thinkers, to be the masters of their own learning.
    • The evaluation phase: This happens after students finish the task. Basically, you can help guide them through a formal process that helps them link strategies to performance.
      • You can ask them questions like:
        • “How well do you think you did?”
        • “How well did your strategy work?”
        • “What might you do differently next time?”
        • “What new insights did you uncover about yourself as a learner (strengths or areas of challenge, for example)?”
      • You can give them time to talk to each other and compare the strategies they used. Often, they’ll get great ideas from each other. (But make sure to have each pair report out to the class, so that you can nip any less-than-great ideas in the bud.)
      • Remember that you’re working with a small window in terms of time and emotional bandwidth here. Make sure to capture the evaluation phase as soon as possible after the completion of the task.

Overall, the goal with reflection and metacognition is to help students understand what strategies help them succeed—and to use those strategies more and more over time. Embedded within the idea of growth mindset is that students will be more likely to keep going when things are hard if they understand their success as a consequence of what they do, rather than who they are (i.e. their innate ability). It’s also important that students learn to see failure (or less-than-optimal strategic decisions) as an opportunity to make better decisions next time—and to see their teachers as guides who can help them build their own personal toolkit of skills they’re confident about using.

Also, remember that one of the best ways to help students build their metacognitive skills is to show them how you do it! Modeling each of these processes in realtime can help your students see what they can do on their own. Even simple moves like asking “Hmm, what do I already know about this?” when you’re planning something in class can help bring metacognition to life—and help your students understand that everyone, even their teacher, is always growing and changing.

Here at the CTTL, we can’t get enough of metacognition—and it shows: our newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, contains constant reflection exercises that help teachers learn research-informed strategies for student success in just 3-5 minutes a day. (Psst—for more on reflection and metacognition, check out the Education Endowment Foundation’s Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning Guidance Report. It’s full of helpful ideas!)

Build Your Students’ Learning Capacity With One High-Impact, Low-Cost Strategy

Reflection Image

Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider 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? Class time is too valuable to use for tasks focused on student reaction and metacognition.

Answer: False! Research shows that interventions focused on helping students use metacognitive skills and knowledge can have a great impact on achievement. However, doing so is difficult and requires strategic effort over time on the part of the teacher—hence the benefit of doing it in class.

Metacognition (in short, learning to think about your own thinking) is a crucial part of student development. In fact, strengthening your students’ ability to use their metacognitive skills is one of the most potentially impactful strategies out there for helping them succeed. Extra points: in his analysis of what works in teaching, Rob Coe (formerly a professor at Durham University in the UK) found that metacognition is both high-impact and low-cost. Jackpot! 

It’s a common misconception that successful students are masters of metacognition. To the contrary, high fliers in school, who rely on innate ability alone, often hit trouble later in their careers if they don’t build their metacognitive skills. While students who struggle in school are often more obvious cases for strengthening metacognition, it is important to remember that everyone benefits from practice.

The goal, then, is to create a culture in which each student can use their prior learning experience and self-knowledge to help them with any task they might confront. Of course, doing so is a challenge. So we’ve put together some tips to help you support metacognitive development in your classroom.

  • When you introduce a new task or concept, make a point of asking your students to think about what they’ve experienced or learned in the past that could help them with what they’re currently facing for the first time. You can also model this yourself—research shows that it helps! Walk your class through how you’d approach the new idea if you’d never seen it before, then ask your students to offer up other pathways using what they know.
  • Recognize that metacognition is more than simple reflection. Metacognition goes beyond just asking students to recount their experiences. It requires focus in one (or both) of two areas of questioning:
    • What prior knowledge, skills, and learning strategies can I use in this new scenario? How is this similar and different to learning tasks I’ve faced before?
    • How did the experience I just had change my knowledge of myself as a learner? Do I understand anything new about my strengths, weaknesses, or preferred strategies?
  • Make metacognitive exercises and thinking a constant part of your class experience. Metacognition works best when it’s deeply embedded into the context of a class, not when it’s a standalone lesson or class period. It can even be damaging to mark that you’re heading into the “metacognition section” of a task or lesson. It needs to be a seamless part of the way you teach.
  • Remind your students about the concept of neuroplasticity (check out our previous blog post for more on that) and encourage them to maintain a growth mindset. When they’re confident that they can always evolve and learn new skills—because you’ve told them so every day for a year—they’ll be less likely to be stymied by the unfamiliar, and more able to trust themselves to figure it out.

Of course, integrating metacognition into your classroom practices requires substantial effort and planning. If you’re intrigued about how to work more targeted reflection into in your everyday teaching, check out the Education Endowment Foundation’s “Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning” report.

And look out for our blog post next week, which will further unpack how metacognition works—and how you can help develop it—through different stages of learning.

Here at the CTTL, we’re all about metacognition. Case in point: our newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, involves constant reflection exercises that help teachers learn research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices.

Cramming Doesn’t Work. These Proven Test Prep Strategies Do.

Exam Prep

Photo by Sarah Shaffer on Unsplash

Spring is here! Time for wonderful things, like sunshine and greenery . . . along with some potentially stressful things, like exams. We all know that students’ anxiety levels generally spike around testing time, which isn’t great for anyone involved (including teachers). And, in the face of upcoming stressors, students will often opt for study strategies that aren’t actually very effective.

However, there are some things that you can do to help your students prepare—and succeed—throughout exam season. Better yet, the tips we share here will still be useful when they’re adults! Read on for our roundup of effective test prep strategies that can help your students change their approach to exams, which will help their grades and their attitudes.

The Big (Mistaken) Assumptions

When it comes to study strategies, teachers often assume one of two things:

  • That their new classroom is full of students who have already figured out the methods that work for them (especially if they’re in late middle or high school)
  • That students come to school with an innate, unchangeable amount of scholastic ability

Both of these assumptions are wrong. No matter where a student’s abilities in a given subject are at any one moment, there is always room for improvement. Even students who tend to do well in school run the risk of giving up as soon as things become difficult if they don’t receive encouragement to keep a growth mindset as they move along.

The Remedies

Most students will tell you that the best way to study for a test is to cram. And, yes, last-minute intensive studying might earn a good grade . . . but it doesn’t make anything stick. Unfortunately, students’ learning tends to drop off remarkably quickly after the crammed-for test is over. Fortunately, there are ways to lead students down a much better path:

  • Give students other study strategies to choose from. (We’ll get into this in a moment.)
  • Start using those strategies in low-stakes situations early in the year. Get your students used to different approaches to learning and studying that can continue to serve them when exam time rolls around. It’s basically the classroom equivalent of a program like Couch to 5K (a spaced approach that can help new runners slowly gain the strength and endurance to run a 5K race in 9 weeks).

The Techniques

Below, we list a few study strategies that can help your students better prepare for exams. You can follow the link for a full post on each subject, or check out the bullets to jog your memory if you’re already familiar.

  • Spaced study and retrieval practice lets students get a little rusty before recalling certain information or skills again. You can encourage students to do this in a few key ways:
    • Introduce the idea that retrieval practice—forcing yourself to try and recall things from your memory when it’s hard (or even impossible) to do so—is much better for their studying than re-reading.
    • Make spaced practice a part of your regular curriculum
    • Reinforce earlier knowledge within your review materials and test questions throughout the year.
  • Guided practice helps students walk through the steps of a mental process or subject with support before they go it alone. This can gradually give way to more independent practice. Here’s how to make it happen:
    • At the beginning of the year, when knowledge and skills are still brand new, you can offer more structure – say, giving students a full list of study topics for an upcoming test, or offering worked examples for them to review. Alternating practice questions and worked examples is a great technique, too. You can also use formative assessments in class and encourage students to practice doing them on their own.
    • As skills develop, you can move to approaches like review questions that guide students less directly, but give them an opportunity to test their knowledge and reflect on how well they’re doing. In general, you want to move students along a path from direct instruction, to guided practice, to independent practice monitored by you, to truly independent practice.
    • As students move along that path, encourage them to strengthen their metacognitive skills by reflecting periodically about what strategies are helping them find success as they learn.
    • By the time exams roll around, the goal is for students to be familiar with the processes they need to prepare, so that you can give them some general review materials and be there as a resource if they have questions.
  • Homework can be an incredibly helpful tool for learning, but you’ve got to approach it correctly. Some key things to remember:
    • Use homework as an opportunity for spaced practice. Include some new material, but always connect it back to older knowledge.
    • Think of homework as a way to practice for exams throughout the entire year. Include topics that are sure to show up when it’s time for testing.

The Benefits

When you put the techniques above to work in your classroom, you’ll not only help your students succeed for exams. You’ll also reduce their anxiety, build capacity for metacognition, encourage independence, and make the process far more enjoyable.

Once you help them realize that they’ve actually been preparing for a test all year, the burdens of cramming and stressing out over re-learning old material are lifted. As teachers, it’s an opportunity for us to help them see the connections between everything they’ve been learning and doing—a perspective that will support their development long after school’s out for the summer!

Wondering how these techniques might help your own development as a teacher through continuing education? We’ve got your answer—but it’s a far cry from traditional CE! 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.

Want More Thoughtful Students? Get Them to Ask These Questions.

Elaborative Interrogation and Self-Expression

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

In our last post, we introduced you to John Dunlosky’s study of learning techniques—what works, and what does not. (If you missed that one, go back and read up on the two most efficient approaches!) Dunlosky’s team looked at a range of ways to learn—and, while it’s always a good idea to put those Big Two practices into play in your classroom, the other methods are worth examining, too.

Basically, because our students always have a finite amount of time for studying and learning, we want to help them be as efficient as possible. And, as we’ve mentioned before, students tend to choose easy-but-relatively-ineffective practices when left to their own devices. (Dr. Ian Kelleher, here at the CTTL, once had a student who created incredibly detailed sets of flashcards for every test—and, after putting the pieces together, finally commented “If I hadn’t spent so much time making those flashcards, I would have had time to study!”)

Thus, it’s always a good idea to use highly effective strategies like practice testing (prompting students to actively recall information, rather than just passively rereading) and distributive practice (spacing your practice sessions out, letting some rustiness set in between them). But that doesn’t mean that the techniques that scored a bit lower in Dunlosky’s study should be ignored. Read on to learn more about two approaches that scored “moderately effective” in the study, but can be very useful in the classroom. (Hint: they both involve asking good questions.)

Elaborative Interrogation and Self-Explanation

Elaborative interrogation involves involves getting students to generate an explanation for an explicitly stated fact. To do this, they need to make connections between new and old information, and to think about differences and similarities between related ideas. This helps make the new information stick as it becomes integrated with existing prior knowledge.

To guide students toward elaborative interrogation, we can encourage them to  ask “why” questions:

  • Why is this or that true?
  • Why does it make sense that…?
  • What are the reasons for it?
  • Why would x be true of y, but not of z?
  • Or, simply: Why?

Creating a culture of “why” in the classroom helps create more discerning, thoughtful students—and, in a world of increasing information from potentially dubious sources, helps them parse through data with better judgement as they grow.

Self-explanation guides students to create their own internal dialogue as they learn, and then to actually explain some aspect of their processing. Like elaborative interrogation, it helps students integrate their new learning with what they already know.

To do so, ask them to ask questions that will help them tell a story about how they’re working through the material at hand, and how it connects to their prior knowledge and skills:

  • How does this relate to what I already know?
  • Why am I doing this and not that?
  • What strategies am I using to learn this material, and why?
  • How did I get to this answer? And what did I already know that helped me?
  • How did I move from this idea to that one?

As well as forcing students to put their own thinking process into words, self-explanation helps them communicate their own methods and decisions to others, opening up space for reflection and sharing strategies with each other.

Helpful Classroom Tools

Here are a couple of tools for putting elaborative interrogation and self-explanation into practice with your students. We’ve found them helpful in our own classrooms!

  • Visible Thinking is a rich resource, including a variety of practices and routines for helping students think more deeply (for example, See Think Wonder).
  • Harvard’s Project Zero, which created Visible Thinking above, has a ton of other resources to peruse.
  • Mind Mapping is a helpful tool to help students make connections between ideas.

As you’ll note, these strategies are all about questions that prompt connections between new ideas and previous learning. By encouraging that interconnectedness, we are more likely to build learning that is durable, usable and flexible.

We also hope that encouraging your students to ask and answer their own questions will keep you inquisitive about your own processes and methodologies, too! Teaching is an ever-evolving profession—which keeps things interesting, right?—and we’re always curious about new tools or approaches that help students learn. If you have a great resource to share, please drop it in the comments. We always love to hear from you!

As teachers, we’re always trying to activate new and different neural pathways for our students. The CTTL team does that for other teachers with Neuroteach Global, bringing back similar-but-unrelated-ideas throughout the process to help you make new connections that can come to life in the classroom.

Help Your Students Study Smarter With These Two High-Impact, Research-Backed Strategies

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Re-reading. Highlighting. Making flashcards and quickly flipping through them.

The bad news: When left to their own devices, students often pick learning techniques that feel easy—but are often less than helpful when it comes to actually retaining knowledge. (Remember our discussion about typing notes in class? That’s another example.)

The other bad news: Teachers often aren’t aware of the excellent research that can help suggest better approaches.

The good news: The evidence is out there—and we’re here to distill it for you! Read on to discover two highly effective, research-backed ways to help your students study and learn.

In 2013, John Dunlosky of Kent State led a team of researchers in understanding more about learning techniques. They examined classic study methods in order figure out what actually works, and what doesn’t. Of the ten strategies in the study, only two stood out as “high-utility” in the findings: practice testing and distributed practice. That doesn’t mean that the other strategies, such as rereading, summarizing and mnemonics, are never useful—and we’ll get into that in another blog post—but it does mean that they require more specific requirements or use cases. So, for now, let’s talk about the high-utility choices.

First up: Practice Testing

Even if a student doesn’t perform well on a practice test, the process itself helps with learning. It’s all about recall: for example, if a practice test consists of asking students to write everything they know about a subject on a piece of paper, the simple act of trying to remember has some impact on the brain. So, even if a student ends up drawing a complete blank and ends up with an empty sheet of paper, trying at all will have helped—especially if they then go back and reread their notes.

The act of asking yourself important questions about a specific topic primes the brain to go back, re-read, and find the location of the information. That first act of struggling to recall is like creating a little bit of Velcro in a student’s brain, making a piece of knowledge stick when they encounter it again.

Next up: Distributed Practice

Distributed practice, true to its name, involves leaving some space between learning and practice episodes. Basically, if you allow some rustiness to occur and then try to recall the information, it’s more likely to stick. Robert Bjork, a psychology professor at UCLA, calls it “deliberate difficulty.”

Students, of course, generally don’t like this—because they’re used to being penalized for getting things wrong. So, if you’re using distributed learning in the classroom, it’s key to support your students emotionally. The goal should be to determine what students know and don’t know before any kind of summative assessment that counts for major points—not to make sure they’re perfect during practice time.

How can teachers put these insights into action?

  • Incorporate these highly effective learning strategies into the way you teach your subject material—don’t assume that your students have mastered them, even if you know they’ve been exposed to them in other courses. It can be difficult for students to switch contexts effectively, so you’ll need to provide some direction when it comes to using familiar strategies in a new class. (Some students may get it immediately, of course, but you’ll almost always see a range of needs for support.) Your structured guidance will help them move toward independence.
  • We all know how hard it can be to get students to put effort into something that doesn’t affect their grade. Therefore, we suggest making both practice tests and distributed learning exercises worth something—so that your class really gives it a try—but not enough to really affect their overall grade.
  • Make sure practice tests and quizzes require explanation or thought, so that students are forced to write something (not just pick an option in a multiple choice question). You want to make sure they can’t get the answer right by guessing. Encourage some level of thinking about why something is true.
  • Be honest with students about how these strategies might feel to them. Again, effortful learning can be frustrating. One study involving the effectiveness of distributed learning on assessments revealed that students who used these techniques did better in the course, but often felt like they were doing worse during their studying. They felt less confident going in to take tests, even though their performance improved. Remind them that the struggle they feel is actually good for their brains—and though they might feel worse with a more effective strategy, they’re actually making sure that their knowledge sticks around.

As usual, our role as teachers puts us in a position not only to pass on knowledge, but give our students the full range of tools they need—strategic, logistical, and emotional—to help them solidify and retain information, setting them up for long-term success. Helping them master highly useful learning strategies is a key part of that. (And remember, some of the lower-performing methods may still have their place—stay tuned for our next post for more on that.)

Wondering how practice testing and distributed practice might help your own development as a teacher? We’ve got your answer! 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.

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

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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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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.