Educators educating Educators

May 28

Oct 15 Teaching based on Neuroscience


To begin this month’s Ed Tips, let’s start with a few simple questions.

How does the brain take what you taught today and convert it into long-term memories?

Is there a teaching technique that directly corresponds to how the brain develops long-term memories?

Will it make sense to teach in accordance with how the brain learns?

Luckily, neuroscience has supplied us with answers to these questions but first a little biochemistry is necessary.

Eric Kandel, the person who answered these questions, was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000 for his research based on memory storage in neurons.

Working with a snail, Kandel and his colleagues discovered what happens when you convert short-term memories to long-term memories. He established that short-term memory involves transient changes of the connections between the cells. There is no anatomical change.

Second, he revealed that long-term memory involves enduring changes that result from the growth of new synaptic connections. More specifically, he discovered that the long-term synaptic changes required new protein synthesis while the short-term changes did not.

He then focused his research on the following the questions: Why is protein synthesis required for long-term and not short-term facilitation? What are the molecular steps that switch on long-term facilitation and, once switched on, how is it maintained?

What Kandel found next was that new proteins are activated by genes initiated by a protein (cAMP-dependent protein kinase). This was the first evidence that in the nucleus, these kinases act on a gene regulator called CREB-1 (the cAMP response element binding proteins) to initiate a cascade of gene actions. With David Glanzman and Craig Bailey, Kandel found that the CREB-mediated gene cascade, which triggers the synthesis of new protein, is required for the growth of new synaptic connections. It is the formation of new synapses that sustains long-term change.

In short, Kandel discovered that short-term memory had been linked to functional changes in existing synapses, while long-term memory was associated with a change in the number of synaptic connections.

Below is a diagram showing the physical changes that occur in the brain during learning.

Kleem Brain Changes when You Learn

Below is a diagram showing the chemical changes in the brain during a learning event.

Kleem Lasting memory

As illustrated in the above diagram, making a long-term memory requires a physical change in the brain that requires protein synthesis. Researchers have shown that if you block protein synthesis with drugs, new memories can’t be formed.

Most importantly, genes are also involved when a long-term memory is formed. As shown in the diagram, CREB is a memory gene, and there may be more.

Therefore, when a permanent memory is formed, genes are activated and enable the storage of the signals that represents the learning experience. Genetically, the genes are expressing.

As an example, just as it takes time for wet concrete to set up, it also takes time for the long-term storage of a learning experience to occur due to chemical and physical reactions and changes that must occur in the dendrites of neurons.

Now that the biochemistry is over, what pedagogy does a teacher use to facilitate the neuroscience involved in the formation of a long-term memory?

Researchers have found that the long-term effects of learning are strongly dependent on whether training is performed all at once (“massed training”), or in spaced intervals (“spaced training”). Gains incurred in massed training disappeared within 24 hours, but those gained in spaced training were sustained longer.

Spaced learning is a learning method in which highly condensed learning content is repeated three times, with two 10-minute breaks during which distractor activities such as physical activities are performed by the students. It is based on the temporal pattern of stimuli for creating long-term memories reported by R. Douglas Fields in Scientific American in 2005.

The following two teaching techniques are based on the massed vs. spaced teaching method and will help improve learning for all students: “Press and Release” and the ”Pulsed” learning pattern. Both methods emphasize providing class time for students to reflect upon recently presented material and then time for metacognition (thinking about thinking).

The “Press and Release” method of instruction is modeled on controlling how information should flow to students’ brains.

A classroom utilizing the “Press and Release” model is designed so that there is a constant adjustment period of pressing (instruction) and releasing (a reflecting/recapping/summarizing activity). Normally, classroom time is divided into longer time for instruction (press) followed by a shorter time for reflection and metacognition (students thinking about their thinking).

The “pulsed” learning pattern is based on research that the brain learns best when “focused” (instruction/lecturing) period of instruction is followed by breaks of 2 - 5 minutes for diffusion activities that facilitate the processing of the information.

A high school model of the “pulsed” learning pattern would resemble the following example: focused period equaling 15/20 minutes followed by a diffused/processing period of 2/5 minutes, and this pattern repeated for the entire class.

As one can see, both instructional methods provide the time needed for the physical and chemical changes to occur in neurons that enable both short- and long-term memories to be formed.

Personally, I have utilized both methods and found them to be highly effective for long-term retention of information. And thanks to Eric Kandel, now know I know why these methods improve the learning of all students.


Read April's Ed Tip to understand how using video game design principles will improve instruction.  Moreover, educators should not view video games as the enemy of education, but rather a model for best teaching practices. When educators design instructional strategies, they must keep in mind the principles of video games, namely achievable challenge, and the role of dopamine in education.