Brains, minds and teaching

A delightful, short, breezy introduction to how to leverage the brain to learn.

Interesting research looking at brains of graduate school students vs. high school dropouts (through autopsies) have revealed that the first ones have about 40% more connections than the latter. That the state of learning in the general population is not particularly encouraging, on the other hand, is confirmed by the fact that only 50% of the adult population has acquired formal reasoning skills...




Time is of the essence, especially when it comes to the brain. Our brains go through a natural cycle of rest-activity that lasts about 90-110 minutes. Depending on when you are in the cycle, you may or may not be receptive to the material being presented during a lecture. Attention, the holy grail of every teacher, cannot be maintained for more than 10 minutes at a time, and it always trades off with meaning – you can’t have both simultaneously. People need time to internalize learning, about 2-5 minutes per each 10-15 minutes of learning. All of this points toward some strategies as better than others in both teaching and grading. For example, having students do home assignments or portfolios instead of subjecting them to tests in class significantly improves their response.

If we are in the business of maximizing brain growth, two ingredients are essential according to recent neurobiological research: challenge and feedback. Challenges can be problem solving, critical thinking exercises, carrying out relevant projects, engaging in complex activities. Feedback has to be specific, multi-modal, delivered in a timely fashion, and controlled by the learner to the extent that it is possible. All of this will make for much more engaged and responsive students.



The brain has two major kinds of explicit memory (plus implicit memory, such as procedural and reflexive): semantic and episodic. The diagram (from Gazzaniga 2000) shows the difference: semantic memory deals with internalizing concepts, episodic memory with specific events that are important for one reason or another.

Both kinds of memory are important for learning. Semantic memory is more closely associated with classic “book learning”, it is difficult, and it comes less naturally, probably because it is still evolutionarily novel. Episodic memory is stimulated by novelty, it is very dynamic, and it comes more naturally. The right panels list the kinds of activities known to stimulate semantic and episodic memory.

Concept maps can be used to learn, to think, and to teach. They can be done with simple post-it notes, using generic graphic software such as Power Point, or using special software such as “Inspiration”.


Posted by Jay Cross at November 5, 2002 11:12 PM | TrackBack
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