Educators educating Educators

May 26

March 17 Increasing Learning

Last month I discussed the importance of educators knowing the neuroscience of learning in order to increase a child’s learning. This month I will present two methods based on neuroscientific research that will definitely improve student learning.

If students are to be engaged and ready to learn, one has to start by engaging their minds. From a neuroscientific perspective, introducing relevance and emotion are two techniques which are exceptionally effective in accomplishing engagement.

Christopher Hulleman and J.M. Harackeiwicz write in Science (2013) that when students find material to be relevant, there is an increase in interest level, understanding, memory, and grades. According to a survey taken by the American Promise Alliance in October, 2015, two of the top five reasons students gave for dropping out were boredom (26%) and lack of personal relevance (21%). Many students said that school was boring and teachers did little to connect learning to real life. They didn’t feel invested in their school and they didn’t feel that adults seemed interested in them or their high school experience.

John Almarode, Assistant Professor at James Madison University, believes that, “Our brain wants immediate behavioral relevance.” Almarode states that “The nucleus basalis, a brain region in the middle of the brain, becomes very active when something is judged to be behaviorally relevant. When the nucleus basalis is activated, this collection of neurons triggers the release of an abundance of acetylcholine, a chemical that transmit information between neurons. Therefore, when something is deemed to be behaviorally relevant, a neurophysiological chain of events is set into motion that actually increases the formation of memories associated with the behaviorally relevant event.” In short, when acetylcholine is produced by the nucleus basalis, the attention system becomes engaged and focuses the brain on events that are behaviorally relevant.

Noteworthy, acetylcholine is also involved in sleep and dreaming. It has been discovered that when people develop Alzheimer’s, the brain cells that produce acetylcholine are destroyed, stopping them from dreaming as much. Interestingly, a side effect of the most commonly used drug to treat Alzheimer’s – Aricept - is its ability to induce vivid dreams.

Psychologists have long known that emotionally intense events produce vivid memories and emotional arousal provides an advantage for the long-term storage of important details of an experience. Emotions occur in response to events, keep our brains focused on critical information, and motivating us to develop behaviors to gain what we desire and avoid what we fear.

The area of the brain associated with emotional learning and memory is the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the center of the brain that is the emotional processing center of the brain and is necessary for memory retention. The amygdala prioritizes information going to the prefrontal cortex, the brain region responsible for the brain’s higher levels of thinking such as working memory and critical thinking.

The amygdala is the brain’s fire alarm, its intensity button, and the center of the brain’s flight-or-flight reaction. The amygdala allows us to feel and form memories of feelings such as pleasure, panic, anger, rage, and fear. The amygdala creates and maintains emotions using dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.

The amygdala sets a person’s emotional tone by focusing attention on emotional events in the world, and then stores highly charged emotional memories, both positive and negative. It creates and supervises not only the formation of emotional experiences but also maintains the memory of emotional experiences. Brain-imaging studies have shown that the greater amygdala activation during an event, the greater the learning/encoding, and the likelihood for memory recall.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules, writes that “during stress, there is more activity in the amygdala than the prefrontal cortex; even as minor a stressor as seeing a frowning face before answering a question which can decrease a student’s ability to remember and respond accurately.”

Medina refers to the amygdala as the Post-it note center of the brain. Why do we use Post-it notes? To remember, and the amygdala is the brain’s Post it notes creator. The amygdala attaches a Post-it note to all emotionally laced events. It attaches a positive Post-it note to events that contain respect, humor, music, self-appreciation, kindness, positive interacting with family and peers, expressions of gratitude, choice, and optimism. Conversely, it attaches a negative Post-it note to events that are stressful, boring, fearful, frightening, and those containing anger, fear, bullying, and poor family and peer interactions.

If the amygdala is emotion, then the hippocampus is memory. The amygdala and the hippocampus are not only functionality related but also anatomically located in close proximity. Structurally, both regions are near the center of the brain, approximately between the ears, with the amygdala in front of the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is deeply involved in memory formation and the conversion of short-term memories into longer-term memories. It is in constant communication with the amygdala. Strong emotions that are emitted by the amygdala improve the encoding process in the hippocampus nerve cells, thereby making it easier for retrieval of an experience. Naturally, this is valuable because it allows events to be more easily remembered given that they were “emotionally stimulating.”

Over the last two months I hope I have swayed readers to believe that knowing the neuroscience of learning will improve student learning. I maintain that by understanding these principles of learning, educators will develop a deeper understanding of how and why their teaching practices are effective in increasing student learning by positively affecting the minds of their 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.