Dialogue on Learning Unlocking the extraordinary potential of every mind.
printer friendly
  About Us About Us
  Resources Resources
  Classroom Applications


  Community Community
  Additional Learning Opportunities Additional
  Site Map Site Map
  Home Home



Tompkins Cortland Community College

Model A Model for the Creation of
Meaningful Community College Learning Experiences


Creating a


Physical Considerations in the Learning Space
Physical Considerations in the Learner
A Model for Instruction
Things to Remember


In order to create a safe, learning-centered environment, we should consider the following:

Light, Temperature and Air Quality
Those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder recognize the power of light to affect one's emotions.  But light can also affect how one learns. A study conducted by Wayne London in 1988 (as cited by Jensen & Dabney, 2000) showed that students performed better in brightly-lit classrooms than in dimly-lit classrooms. The study also showed that students in a room with lots of natural light scored 20% to 26% higher in math and reading tests. It's important to have a well lit room with natural light preferred, but we have found that it may be useful, if possible, to vary lighting as well.  Students will have different preferences for the intensity of light and it will be impossible to please all students all the time.  Try turning off the lights (if you have windows in the room), or dimming the lights from time to time as it's appropriate. For example, I often turn down the lights when my students participate in small group discussions. It makes the classroom atmosphere a bit more intimate and helps students to be more open about their thoughts and opinions.

Although we may be able to manipulate light somewhat in our classrooms, we have even less control over temperature. Some people are especially sensitive to variations in temperature. When I'm teaching, though, it is easy for me to become so absorbed in what I want to accomplish that I forget about the quality of the air and temperature in the room. As teachers, we need to make ourselves consciously aware of these things. We all know the effects of sitting in a stuffy room on our brain functioning. Studies show that cooler temperatures promote relaxation and receptivity, while warmer temperatures promote arousal, which can lead to inappropriate behavior. A study done by David Harner in 1974 (as cited by Jensen & Dabney, 2000), suggests that the optimal room temperature is 68 to 74 degrees, especially when focus and concentration are required.  If possible, we can open a window, or if not, turn on a fan or open a door.  Since we can't open windows at TC3, we have a water fountain and several plants in our room to help maintain good air quality. The fountain and plants also help to create a more natural environment, which is also conducive to learning.


We have long known that color can affect our moods and emotions.  Most people are aroused by the warm colors (red, orange, and yellow), but feel more relaxed with the cooler colors.  In Brain-Based Learning (2000a), Jensen suggests that the optimal classroom colors are yellow, light orange, beige, or off-white, based on a study by Robert Gerard of the University of California done in 1991. Not surprisingly, our emotional state determines how color affects us. If we are stressed, red can bring out aggressive feelings, while red can attract our attention if we are feeling relaxed.   Luckily, most classrooms are painted in a beige or off-white color, an acceptable color, according to Jensen.

In addition to the color of the walls, we can greatly improve the physical environment of our learning spaces by adding colorful, visually appealing posters, pictures or other graphic images to the walls. Although we are living in a visual age, visual cues have been extremely important for survival for humans throughout the millennia.  In other words, responding to visual stimuli is hard-wired into our brains. A classroom that is visually appealing adds to the comfort level and can help to reduce stress and promote a sense of community.  According to Jensen (2000a), the brain is capable of registering 36,000 visual massages per hour.  Between 80-90% of information that the brain absorbs is visual.   Making use of color is very helpful in getting the brain's attention. Jensen cites a study by Vuontela in 1999 that indicates memory of verbal cues is enhanced by color.

Researchers "speculate that abstract art may be especially potent.  Because of its hidden meanings and atypical shapes and contours, abstract art, like abstract thinking, requires the viewer to 'step out of reality' and make use of more cognitive regions--a process that Rose (1991) calls 'tension and release.' The process calls for the viewer to take in the art as a whole, then visually and mentally dissect it, and finally put it back together to gain meaning.  This stimulates the brain's occipital lobe (which controls vision and spatial and geometric functions), the temporal lobe (non-verbal pattern recognition), and the cerebrum (sensory interpretation, thinking and memory).  Because more brain areas are stimulated and used than in routine observation, the brain gets a heightened mental workout which can enhance perception and learning, states Rose."  (Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 79)

We have to admit that most college classrooms leave something to be desired in the way of visual images. One obvious way to increase visual stimulation is with the use of colorful handouts, colorful powerpoint presentations or overhead transparencies. Jensen and Dabney (2000) cite a study by Farley and Grant conducted in 1976 that showed that full color multi-media images promote recall significantly better than black and white images. One study (as cited by Jensen & Dabney, 2000) even showed that college students performed better on identical tests printed on blue paper than on red paper. The color blue is more calming than red and promotes deep thinking and concentration.

But we would encourage you to be even more creative. As we suggested earlier, see if it is possible to have all of your classes meet in one room and then ask others who teach in that room if you can put up some pictures on the wall. The pictures can suggest themes and concepts that are important for your content area. In addition to adding color and interest to the environment, such additions can play a role in peripheral learning which we'll look at later.


Arrangement of furniture
One of the most easily changed features of the physical environment of our learning spaces is the seating arrangement, at least in many college classrooms. Rows of seats work well for a large lecture class, but smaller sized classes provide us with an excellent opportunity to provide for interactive learning. In Learning Smarter, Jensen and Dabney (2000) cite a study by Sommers that indicated that small group interaction helps students to make connections between new material and previously learned material, strengthening the neural connections in long-term memory. Jensen (2000a) cites a study done by R. Wlodlowski suggesting that rows of seats facing the front of the room are not conducive to active processing and interactive learning.  More informal arrangements such as circles, U-shapes and V-shapes are better suited.  Another study done by J. Della Valle cited by Jensen indicates that many students need "extensive mobility while learning." (Jensen, 2000a, p. 110) For such students, being required to sit in a seat for extended periods of time can actually interfere not only with attention but also learning. Later, we'll talk about using movement in the classroom, but here the point is that we need to set up a learning environment where students feel free to stand, sit on the floor, or move quietly about the room if they need to.

I have often observed that where students sit on the first day of class is where they continue to sit throughout the semester. Some students may prefer the left or right side of the room because of handedness, while others may prefer a front or back seat depending on their willingness to be engaged in the class. A teacher may also consciously or unconsciously speak more to one side of the room or other or prefer to stand in specific places in the room. Thus, when seating patterns become fixed, it is likely that some students are at a disadvantage. Furthermore, when seating patterns become fixed, students may not have opportunities to interact with all members of the class. Encouraging students to sit in different places in the room can remedy these types of problems. Later we will talk about the value of novelty. Having students move about the room has the advantage of introducing novelty into the learning environment.

In our classroom at TC3, we have the luxury of having large round tables. Not only are such tables excellent for small group work, but they also make the physical environment of the room more inviting. The very seating arrangement makes it clear that learning involves collaboration among students. An interesting feature of our classroom is that there is intentionally no "front" of the room. Depending on the activity, students may be turned in one direction to look at the blackboard, and then turn around to look at an overhead transparency on the screen. As I teach in this room, I find myself constantly moving about. This means that I will be close to all of the students in the class at one time or other during the class time. Even students who are too reserved to get up out of their seats find themselves at least frequently changing positions in their seats. Nor is there a teacher's desk. Since we are basically constructivists in our approach, we believe that students must construct their own meaning. We teachers are not the sources of knowledge, but the guides to knowledge. By removing the teacher's desk, we are communicating this change in our roles.


Just as we recognize that the physical environment, things like weather, light, and noise, can influence us, so too we know that our bodies also influence us. It's not hard to remember sitting in a lecture class and having a hard time staying awake after a night of studying for a test. Or the difficulty of staying alert after a heavy pasta lunch. Nutrition, rest, and physical activity are necessary for keeping our bodies healthy, but also our brains.  Unfortunately, not only students but also teachers are experts at abusing their bodies without taking into consideration that the mind and body are inextricably intertwined. Lack of rest or exercise, excessive alcohol or food, or too much work can all take their toll on us. As instructors, we need to model as well as instruct about the proper care of the body.  This is not an easy task, given the students' and our own busy schedules.  We have all had students who stumble into class, having overslept after a long night of studying (or whatever), without having had breakfast.  It's clear that their learning is not optimal is such situations. We need to address this vital issue in our classes. I include a statement in my course outline about the mind/body connection and emphasize that good learning requires healthy bodies.



Brain Food--Air and Water
The body, and thus the brain as well,  needs glucose, oxygen and water to function properly.    Jensen tells us that the brain consumes an incredible 20% of the body's energy, derived from blood flow to the brain.  (Jensen, 1998)

Brain cells consume oxygen and glucose (a form of sugar) for fuel.  The more challenging the brain's task, the more fuel it consumes.  Therefore, it is important to have adequate amounts of these fuels present in the brain for optimum functioning.  Low amounts of oxygen and glucose in the blood can produce lethargy and sleepiness.  Eating a moderate portion of food containing glucose (fruits are an excellent source) can boost the performance and accuracy of working memory, attention, and motor function. (Sousa, 2000, p. 10)

Even if the air quality in our classrooms is excellent, many students may still be oxygen deprived because of improper breathing. Many studies have shown that most of us a shallow breathers. Jensen and Dabney cite studies by Bernardi in 2000 and by Sloan in 1991 that demonstrate that breathing patterns can be negatively affected by stress and anxiety. Shallow breathing and irregular breathing patterns reduce the amount of oxygen that is taken in and impact brain processing. It can be very helpful to take "breathing breaks" during our classes, a time to stretch and breath deeply. I begin all of my classes with thirty to sixty seconds of stretching and deep breathing. When I notice that attention is lagging or students seem to be drowsy, I will have them stand for just a few seconds, stretch and breath deeply.

Water bottle.Water also important for good brain functioning. According to Jensen (2000a), Dr. Carla Hannaford has discovered that the average student is dehydrated, which leads to lowered learning.  We are constantly being reminded by health officials to drink plenty of water. Water is better for us than coffee, tea, or soft drinks. We should encourage our students to drink more by allowing them to have beverages, preferably water or fruit juices, in the class room. And of course, we should model this behavior by having our own glass of water with us while we teach.


It's not news that today people are less active than in past generations. Galen Cranz, a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley (as cited by Jensen & Dabney, 2000), asserts that we spend two-thirds of our lives in either a chair or a bed. And for most of us, when we think of learning, we see ourselves seated either in a classroom at a desk or at a table at home. But research has shown that movement plays an important role in learning. It activates many systems in the brain and creates an aroused attentional state that promotes learning.

The body's movement is first detected by the sensory systems in the inner ear. Impulses in the inner ear travel to the cerebellum, and from there to the rest of the brain ...The inner ear also stimulates the reticular activating system, which you may recall regulates incoming data and, thus, is critical for getting our attention. ... Studies have found that signals from the cerebellum go to multiple areas in the cerebrum, arousing attention, memory, spatial perception, and the frontal lobe's cognitive functions--the same areas that are stimulated during learning. It seems that the more we study the cerebellum, the more we realize that movement is inescapably linked to learning. (Sousa, 2000, p. 230)

"Today's brain, mind and body research establishes significant links between movement and learning.  Educators ought to be purposeful about integrating movement activities into daily learning." (Jensen, 1998, p. 88) So how do we use movement in our classes to improve learning.   Any learning activity that involves movement is an obvious choice: science experiments, getting out of the chairs and measuring in math classes, using equipment in any technical class. Some classes lend themselves to role-playing, simulations, dramatizations or dance. But these can be used to good advantage in classes that are normally the "sit and listen" type of class. Students in a history class can dramatize a particular event in history that is particularly important or complex. Students in literature classes can do the same. Psychology and sociology classes can also integrate such activities quite easily into instruction.

There are other ways to integrate movement into a class, ways that take but a minute or two and require very little space orHuman figure stretching to the right. preparation. Jensen and Dabney (2000) cite research that recommends stretching and deep breathing for three minutes for every hour of sedentary activity. Having students stand, stretch and breath deeply from time to time can be very beneficial. Adding some movement to the stretching increases the benefits. For example, students can extend their arms out to the side, up to the ceiling and down to the floor in a smooth movement while breathing deeply. Cross-lateral movements seem to be especially helpful: swinging the arms in front of the body, moving one leg other either in front or in back of the other, alternate toe touching, or even simply hugging one's self. If more energetic movements are required to revive sluggish students, one could have students quickly move about the room and touch seven objects that are the same color or write their names in the air with either the elbows or their feet. Marching in place or taking 5 large steps away from one's seat to lively music can get blood flowing and lungs breathing. I like to combine walking with a review/rehearsal activity: take five steps away from your seat, find a partner, and tell them what are the critical elements in a thesis statement and then return to your seat. Allowing students to stand or quietly move about the room as necessary gives students with special needs the freedom to move to their own body rhythms. Notice that many of our activities in the classroom applications section include movement of some sort.


Body Rhythm and Sleep
Our bodies have natural but differing bio-rhythmic cycles, ranging in length from a year to less than an hour. Yearly biorhythms consist of variations in bodily functioning with changes in the seasons. Some of us just naturally feel better and function better at a particular time of year, most notably in summer, when days are longer and we tend to be more active. Monthly cycles are obvious in menstruating women, but even men experience monthly fluctuations in hormone levels. Jensen (1998) talks about 7-day cycles in both humans and animals. It is, however, the daily cycles that most concern us as teachers.

The physiological functions that are impacted by our bio-rhythms include pulse rate, blood pressure, neurotransmitter levels, and cell division. Psychological responses include changes in mood, concentration level, and learning. ... In addition, these cycles influence memory, accident rate, immunology, physical growth, reaction time, and pain tolerance. (Jensen, 2000a, 41)

So let's look at sleep first. Sleep is important for long-term memory. The encoding of information into the long-term memory storage occurs during deep sleep, specifically during the REM (rapid-eye movement) stage of sleep. During a normal sleep of eight to nine hours for most people, five REM cycles occur. Some have suggested that "unlearning" also takes place during this deep sleep, that is, getting rid of unneeded information by rearranging neural networks. Processing of emotional events also occurs at this time. If an individual doesn't get enough sleep, it reduces the amount of REM time and thus impacts long-term storage of date. At the How the Brain Learns Conference in Boston (2001) Jensen stated that the most important work is done by the brain during the first two hours and the last two hours of sleep, so a full night's sleep is important. Sousa (2000) discusses a sleep disorder called Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder (DSPD), which is becoming more and more common. "It is characterized by a persistent pattern that includes difficulty falling asleep at night and getting up in the morning, fatigue during the day and alertness at night." (p. 103) In addition to causing problems with memory storage, such a pattern impacts overall health as well. Yet how many of our students seem to suffer from this disorder. Jensen made an interesting observation in Boston: Tasks involving only memory are not as vulnerable to sleep loss as critical thinking. That is why cramming works. A student who stays up all night cramming for a test may do well enough on the test, but the information will be quickly forgotten because it hasn't passed into long-term storage. On the other hand, critical thinking tests require a full night's sleep.

Just as at night when we experience cycles of deep REM sleep and light sleep, so also during the day we experience fluctuations in our ability to concentrate and focus. Our brains can benefit from a time of rest during the day as well. Rest periods during the day allow the brain time to review and begin incorporating new learning into long-term storage. If our or our students' schedules allow it, a power nap in the middle of the day, the traditional Spanish siesta, has been shown to have positive effects on the brain.

At this point, it may be good to step back and see what we are really saying here. What does it mean to us as teachers when we say that information is moved into long-term storage. When we first begin to process information, as we have seen from the discussion on brain function (Click here to go to that page), it occurs first in immediate memory and then proceeds to working memory. If the data in working memory makes sense and is meaningful, if it has emotional significance or is important for survival, it is passed into long-term storage. Information that is not in long-term storage cannot be recalled at a later point in time. For us, exposure to new data and even using it for a period of time successfully, such as a new formula for solving a math problem, does not necessarily mean it has been learned. Learning involves retention, the ability to call up the information again for future use. Attention to new information is not enough. The information must be integrated and consolidated with prior knowledge and experience in such a way that it can be retrieved and used again. This requires periods of rest.

Beyond the long-term storage of information, our sleep cycle can also influence our ability to focus and pay attention. One consequence of becoming fatigued is downshifting, that is, we simply loose the ability to actively process what is happening in our environment. Furthermore, all of us know that work seems to flow more for us at certain times of the day. In fact, the time of the day that different kinds of activities take place can influence memory according to Brewer and Campbell (1991). They go so far as to suggest specific times of the day for doing short-term memory work, rote memory work, and more integrative learning. For most people, though, there is a regular down time about 12 hours after the mid-point of the previous nights sleep, that is, about mid-afternoon for most people. Individual students can vary significantly, depending on when and how long the slept and other factors that are happening in their lives. It would be a scheduling nightmare if we tried to make scheduling of classes adhere to the most productive times of the day for different types of learning. However, as we advise students, we can ask them to think about their most productive times of the day and their down times. Scheduling a class that requires deep analytical thinking during a down time, whenever that is, might not be such a good idea if there is a choice. Within our academic departments, it might be wise to check on classes of only one section to be sure that they meet at more productive times (for most people) than mid-afternoon. On the other hand, classes that involve movement or hands-on activities can be scheduled for that mid-afternoon time slot. At the very least, a longer break with some physical movement during the mid-afternoon can help a person recover from the mid-day slump. Some researchers suggest that we need a 5-15 minute break every 1 to 2 hours of concentrated mental activity.  Jensen (1998) says we need 5-10 minute breaks every 90-110 minutes, that is not just changing to a different class, but true down time.

Several studies have shown that "the brain's neural connections are strengthened and solidified when competing neural stimuli ceases for several minutes subsequent to concentrated study."  (Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 7)


Learning Rhythms
There is not a lot that we as educators can do about the yearly, monthly, weekly or daily body rhythms other than raise awareness among our students how these factors can affect learning and recall. But research also shows that there is a smaller cycle that impacts learning. We need to understand these learning rhythms well in order to promote a good physical environment in our learning environments. Jensen (1998) cites a study by Allan Hobson of Harvard University done in 1989 that indicates our ability to learn is influenced by fluctuations in brain chemistry that occur about every ninety minutes throughout the day and night, or about 16 times per day. The research demonstrates that a period of down time after concentrated study helps the brain form stronger neural connections. Our brains need time to filter new information, relate it to prior learning and past experiences, in order to prepare information for long term storage. Studies show that adults become fatigued after about 25 minutes of intense cognitive activity. This does not mean that we should give our students breaks every 20 to 25 minutes. But it does mean that we should change the pace or vary the activity after about 20 to 25 minutes of sustained concentration. A moment of stretching and deep breathing can be sufficient. But a change of academic activity often works just as well. For example, move from lecture to small group discussion, or from intense small group discussion to reflection activities, or from project work to individual work.

The brain shifts its cognitive abilities on those high and low cycles.  There's literally change in blood flow and breathing on these cycles that affects learning.  ... This oscillation [between high and low cycles] suggests that we will get lower scores if we test students at the wrong time.  It makes a case for choice in the learning process and choice in the assessment process.  Portfolios, which are compiled over time, are more inclusive and accurate than a 'snapshot' test, since they may average in the highs and lows better. (Jensen, 1998, p. 44)

Sousa (2000) discusses the Primacy-Recency Effect, which also has an impact on learning and retention. Essentially, this principle says that retention of information also depends on when it is presented in a learning situation. Here is an experiment that Sousa suggests which will help you understand this principle. You will need a timer, a pencil and a piece of paper with the numbers 1-10 written in a column.  Click here to try this experiment.

If your response was typical, you probably remembered the first three or four and then the last one or two, but had difficulty with the ones in the middle. This is explained by the Primacy-Recency Effect, which says that we remember best that which comes first and second best, that which comes last. The things at just past the mid-point we remember least well of all. Thus, in a 40 minute class, says Sousa, the best time for processing new information is during the first 20 minutes. The second best time is during the last 10 minutes. The middle 10 minutes are down time.

The first items of new information are within the working memory's functional capacity so they command our attention, and are likely to be retained in semantic memory. The later information, however, exceeds the capacity and is lost. As the learning episode concludes, items in working memory are sorted or chunked for additional processing of the arriving final items, which are likely held in immediate memory unless further rehearsed. (Sousa,2000, pp. 88-89)

At the How the Brain Works Conference in Boston, Jensen (2001) cautioned us to keep this in mind as we give directions. For most of us, the tendency is to recite all of the instructions for a particular task at one time. Then we expect the students to follow the instructions. For example, I might say, "Divide up into groups of 3, read the article on page 28, decide what the main idea is, and then check with your group to see if you agree. Once you agree on the main idea, decide which ideas are the important supporting ideas and which ones are details." Given what we know about working memory, students may remember the first two and the last steps, but forget the middle steps. So the solution is simple: give one step of the instructions at a time. Simple, but in our eagerness to get through the material, how often we forget.

So, based on this information, we can see that we may need to reconsider how we structure a learning episode. One conclusion is that we should present new, important information first. How many of us waste this valuable time with announcements, taking attendance and collecting homework, things which could be easily accomplished during the mid-class down time because they don't require intense attention. The middle time can also be used to allow the brain to process information through practice, review, or feedback. This gives the brain time to organize and process the new information for storage and recall.    Then the last 15 minutes of the class can be dedicated to solidifying and embedding the information in long-term memory.  Helping students to attach sense and meaning to the information will also help the process of long-term storage.

Research has also shown the three processes help the brain with long-term storage of information: attention, rehearsal and priming. Attention involves focusing on what is important and simultaneously ignoring what is not important. For example, we we are looking for a misplaced book, our brains focus on the image of the missing book and ignore all other unrelated input, whether it is pencils, magazines, boxes or whatever. As we have seen in the discussion on brain function, attention is always directed first to survival and emotional concerns. In our classrooms, we sometimes assume that our students are paying attention to us, ignoring the fact that attention is not simply a matter of the will. Jensen (1998) tells us "Genuine 'external' attention can be sustained at a high and constant level for only a short time, generally 10 minutes or less." (p. 45) One reason for this is, as we have seen, that the brain must initially sort through an immense data to determine what is important. This sorting out is a very fast, intense process. We need to give the brain time to process this mass of data. Furthermore, the brain must decide if new information is relevant or useful. This internal process of looking for meaning involves examining past experiences and integrating it with the new information. So, we can see that paying attention is in fact a very complex process, obviously influenced by sleep, health and emotional concerns. We teachers need to be sensitive to the degree of attention that students are giving to new learning. Attention tends to be directed to new things in our environment. We can use that characteristic of the brain to our advantage when attention is drifting in our classes. For example, contrast is a great help in getting attention.  So changing the level of the voice to very loud or very soft is one way to get attention. Moving about the room, having students move, or changing activities all help to restore attention.

A second process involved in moving data into long-term storage is called rehearsal. Sousa (2000) says, "The assignment of sense and meaning to new learning can only occur if the learner has adequate time to process and reprocess it. This continuing reprocessing is called rehearsal and is a critical component in the transference of information from working memory to long-term storage." (p. 85) Initial rehearsal occurs when new information is first presented. As we attend to the new information, it is moved into working memory. But as we have seen, working memory is not able to work with information for long periods of time. If there is not enough time for the learner to fully process the new information and attach sense and meaning to it, the new information will probably be lost. Thus, secondary rehearsal becomes vital. Rehearsal can be either simply rote rehearsal, as in the case of memorizing the periodic table of conversions, or elaborative rehearsal as might occur in practice sessions, reflection exercises or review sessions. Without rehearsal, however, there is little chance of long-term storage of information.

Providing sufficient time to go beyond the initial processing to secondary rehearsal allows the learner to review information, to make sense of it, to elaborate on the details, and to assign value and relevance, thus increasing significantly the chance of long-term storage. When done at the end of a learning episode, this rehearsal is called closure. (Sousa, 2000, pp. 85-86)

Both attention and rehearsal can be enhanced by priming. For example, if I ask you to look at a painting by Rembrandt and then discuss it, you will probably not be as successful as if I tell you that this painting exhibits an exceptional use of light. By priming you, you are able to focus your attention on what is important. As you study the painting (initial rehearsal), you make mental notes of how light is used effectively. Then as you tell me about the painting (secondary rehearsal), you are able to recall how light was used. In all likelihood, when you see that same painting days or even weeks later, you will recall that it is a good example of the use of light in paintings. Priming involves telling our students either directly or indirectly what it is they need to know. Many textbooks are set up this way: chapters begin with a preview of the information in the chapter. I for one am guilty of sometimes skipping over the previews, thinking I can make better use of my time if I get right to the meat of the subject. In his conference in Boston, Jensen made good use of indirect priming by having posters around our learning area focusing on different areas of content that he would cover during the conference. In my classes, I've tried to do the same. A week or so before I plan to cover the use of articles (a, an and the) in my classes, for example, I put up a tree diagram which summarizes the most important rules about articles and call my students' attention to it. Although the students might not be able to verbalize the rules from the tree diagram, they do begin to become familiar with the vocabulary that we will use in our discussion of the rules. This pre-exposure, even though cursory, helps to set the stage for a fuller discussion later on. Other ways to accomplish priming include placing a mind-map or other visuals of important concepts on the wall a week before discussion is to begin. Or integrating references to future topics in our discussions. For example, "Next week we will begin to learn how US economic policies of the past impact the global economy today."


So, taking what we know about how the brain processes information and moves it into long-term storage, Jensen suggested the following model for instruction at the Boston Conference.

Use priming and pre-exposure to set the stage for learning new content. At the beginning of the semester, we can use our course syllabi to let students know what topics will be considered during the course In addition to due dates of assignments and page numbers in the text, we can include brief descriptors about the topics. Previews and short human-interest readings on topics can be given out ahead of time. Videos, web-searches, pre-tests, simulations, and posters can all be used to introduce topics ahead of time. Having former students visit the class early in the semester to talk with the students in your class (without you being present) can give the students a chance to get "inside tips" on the class.

Acquisition involves direct and indirect learning. During this stage, it is important to engage your learners and get them vested emotionally, remembering that we process information more easily if there is an emotional hook. We need to frame the new material in terms of past learning and help students to develop their own sense of the meaning and value of the information. While we have emphasized the value of interactive learning, lecture does have its place in the learning process. Lecture is an excellent way to convey information, especially when it is done well. But a interactive, discovery process is sometimes better suited to acquisition of new information.

As we have seen in the discussion on brain function, in academic situations our focus is on declarative meaning. There are two types of declarative meaning: episodic (implicit) and semantic (explicit). Semantic memories include facts and figures and are malleable over time, but also easily forgotten. Eposodic memories sometimes called procedural memories, are more fixed.  Memories are formed when connections are made between neurons in the brain.  More complex memories involve most of our senses and thus require more neural connections.  The more neural connections, the greater the likelihood that memories will be retained.  Experiences that have survival value or strong emotional components, either pleasurable or painful, make stronger neural connections.  The lecture mode of teaching relies heavily on semantic memory, while hands-on, interactive learning is episodic.   "By engaging active and emotional pathways (the 'how' and the 'wow'), we supply an additional 'hook' for learning."  (Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 104)  In other words, movement and emotions activate more of the brain and thus enhance recall.

Elaboration provides for rehearsal, which allows the learner to deepen his or her understanding. This is the time for active processing, which can include a trial and error testing of hypotheses, practice with feedback and review. We need to remember that working memory cannot retain information for long periods of time. Rehearsal is essential for moving information from working memory into long-term storage.

As I recall my own college days, I intuitively knew that I needed to review lecture notes very soon after the lecture. I remember dorm mates who did not do that. When it came time to study for the test, they had to essentially learn the material from scratch again, because they hadn't taken the time to review and rehearse immediately after every class. Unknowingly, by reviewing my notes immediately, I had helped my brain move content from working memory into long-term storage.

Memory Formation:
As we have seen, memory formation requires a period of passive processing, which occurs during rest periods and optimally during deep sleep.   Rest periods of at least one to six hours are recommended by Jensen. During this time, strong neural connections are formed and unnecessary information, at least from the brain's perspective, is deleted. Everything we experience is registered by the brain, but the brain prioritizes the processing and ultimately the long-term storage of this information by value, meaning, and usefulness. The connections in the brain are strengthened by repetition, rest and emotions. Rather than wasting time, longer breaks from our work are essential to long-term memory formation. So how about it--isn't it time to get up and take a walk so you can process some of this information you've been reading?

Functional Integration:
This is the final step that is required to firmly implant new information in long-term memory: application or using it again in a new way. We teachers generally feel that once information has been presented to our students, our job is done. But we need to understand that solid learning takes repetition. Jensen likes to say, "The brain rarely gets it right the first time." To really learn something, students need to revise it, apply it and use it often. If we don't wish to take time for this in class, then we need to help students find effective ways to do this: review assignments, study groups, working with a tutor or periodic review on one's own. Again, emphasizing episodic memory that involves trial and error or hands-on variations is much more useful than simply rote memorization of facts and figures. Rather than concentrating on memorizing formulas, it's better to do more problems that require application of the formula. Rather than memorizing what a thesis statement involves, it's better to write another thesis statement.

When repeating earlier learning, neural pathways become more and more efficient through a process called myelination. The better a task is learned, the less energy is required by the brain.  (Jensen, 1998, p. 13)

Many of us were introduced to Madeleine Hunter's Mastery Teaching (1982) years ago. David Sousa (2000) has taken her instructional model and modified it slightly to reflect recent research in teaching. Since her model is so familiar, it may be helpful for some to use her model. Click here to read about it.


So, providing a physically safe learning environment involves more than making sure the learning space is free of dangerous elements. It means taking into consideration the physical needs of the learner as well. We need to structure the learning experience to optimize long-term memory formation and we need to be aware of the physical needs of our students. To review, the following are important but simple, easy things one can incorporate into the learning experience in response to their physical needs:

  • Encourage students to take care of themselves.  Model this behavior.

  • Begin class with a bit of movement and deep breathing exercises to increase oxygen flow throughout the body.

  • Allow students to drink during the class, encouraging them to drink water.  Model the behavior.

  • Take movement breaks periodically to help keep the body alert.

  • Incorporate color whenever and in whatever way possible.

  • If a student is obviously tired or sick, encourage that student to go home and go to bed.  Ask someone to volunteer to fill in the student on the classes activities.  The sooner a sick or tired student takes care of his/her physical needs, the more quickly he/she will be able to get back in the swing of things.

  • Present new information during the first twenty to twenty-five minutes of a fifty minute class and review it during the last ten minutes. Allow for elaboration during the middle portion of the class.

  • Be aware of the limits of working memory and design instruction with that in mind.

Icon for enriched physical environment.Go to the next section, Creating an ENRICHED PHYSICAL Environment



Learning-Centered Environment links:

Creating a Learning-Centered Environment--Introduction

Brain Function
Creating A Learning-Centered PHYSICAL Environment

Safe and Enriched

Creating A Learning-Centered EMOTIONAL Environment

Safe and Enriched

A couple.
Creating A Learning-Centered SOCIAL Environment

Safe and Enriched

The Model Introduction

Dialogue on Learning Homepage