10 Principles of Effective Learning and Teaching from Brain Researcher John Medina

John Medina is an American brain researcher, molecular biologist, teacher, and author of popular science books. One of them, Brain Rules, focuses on how neuroscience is useful and how to apply it in practice, including effective learning & teaching.

Medina, however, caveats: “One should be skeptical of any claim that brain science can directly answer the question of how to be a better teacher, parent, leader or student.” The scientist shares ideas that can be tested through his own experience, as well as scientific evidence from research and experiments in brain and memory work.

Here are 10 principles from “Brain Rules” that may be helpful to teachers and students alike.

#1. You have to train your brain like a muscle

The brain can and should be developed: just like the body, it is capable of changing (and this is a scientific fact). Our brain, according to Medina, works like a muscle. The harder we study, the larger and more complex it becomes.

For example, violinists have an enlarged area of the brain responsible for left arm movements: it looks like musicians have been following a high-fat diet.

A violinist touches the strings with his left hand and holds the bow in his right. The area that is responsible for the actions of the right hand looks much simpler. The movements of this hand are more monotonous, while the brain area responsible for the left hand is swollen and mottled with grooves because the mechanics of the left hand movements require more filigree from the violinist.

“Whether this leads to the development of intelligence is another question,” the scientist caveats. But it is still necessary to train the brain, to give it tasks, to form new neural connections throughout life.

#2. Don’t trust the standard tests

If training constantly changes the human brain, it means that no two people in the world have the same brain. Therefore, standardized tests are unlikely to help us understand who is smarter than everyone else. It would take seven billion different tests to qualitatively assess each student’s intelligence.

If training constantly changes the human brain, it means that no two people in the world have the same brain. Therefore, standardized tests are unlikely to help us understand who is smarter than everyone else. It would take seven billion different tests to qualitatively assess each student’s intelligence. Everyone has a different memory, a different strength. You have to respect that by not grading only on a “common scale,” try to teach and test individually.

#3. Develop empathy

It is important for teachers to develop the ability to empathize. This will allow you to better understand students’ emotional states. You will be able to distinguish when a student is just being lazy and when something is bothering them or they are feeling insecure in class or in your lesson.

For children to open up to adults, you need to create a safe and emotionally stable environment. According to research, chronic stress interferes with learning. Nervous tension severely harms verbal memory and the ability to concentrate, Medina believes.

Incidentally, recent research has shown that fostering empathy in children is also good for their mental abilities – and it boosts creativity as well.

#4. Take breaks for physical activity

Most anthropologists believe that our ancestors walked at least 19 kilometers a day. Brain development was accompanied by movement: if you sit still – you get into the jaws of the predator. Scientists have found that modern physically active people of any age have better cognitive development than those who do not move much.

In the study, children ran for 30 minutes two to three times a week. And after three months their intellectual abilities had improved. However, once the exercise stopped, the performance was the same. Researchers realized that it was important to oxygenate the brain regularly. Medina himself fills his breaks not with coffee, but with exercise.

If you can’t get a treadmill or a tennis table at school, it is useful to just take frequent walks. The main thing in this case – regularity and gradual increase loads. It is not necessary to take up sports radically.

#5. Give new information in portions

The brain does not pay attention to boring things. For schoolchildren or adults to learn better, you need to constantly attract their attention. But an average lesson or lecture bores most people after about 10 minutes. Scientists haven’t figured out why this happens, but research confirms that a teacher has about 10 minutes to get a listener’s attention.

John Medina conducts lectures with this feature of the brain in mind. He divides 50-minute speeches into 5 modules – 10 minutes each. A module contains one big idea that can be told in a minute. Next comes the details. By the end of the first module, the student’s attention span wanes. They definitely don’t need more information about the subject, and a completely new topic will throw them off balance. How to solve the problem? Rea on the next paragraph.

#6. Appeal to emotion every 10 minutes

Every 10 minutes, Medina gives his students a break from new information, addressing their emotions instead. The scholar calls this technique an “emotional trap.” The trap should engage emotions: to make you laugh, to scare you, to make you happy, to make you nostalgic, or to make you doubt.

Ideally, the trap should be a link between what is told in the first module and what is to come in the second. It can, for example, summarize the material of the first module, or it can, on the contrary, anticipate the content of the second module by engaging emotion.

#7. Use interval repetition

Back in the 19th century, the scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who spent 30 years conducting various experiments to understand how memory works, concluded: new information is forgotten in the first hours after exposure to it. In addition, 90% of what is learned in class is forgotten within a month. To extend the “shelf life” of knowledge, it is necessary to do repetitions at certain time intervals. The more repetition cycles, the better the information is remembered.

Modern research confirms Ebbinghaus’s conclusions. For example, the scientist Robert Wagner asked two groups of students to memorize a long list of words. After giving the list to one group, he asked them to memorize it. He simply showed the words to the second group at long intervals but did not allow them to memorize.

In the end, the first group remembered far fewer words than the second. Based on these results, Harvard psychology professor Dan Schacter gave advice to educators and students:

“If you only have a week to study the material and the opportunity to practice ten times, it’s better to repeat ten times at intervals than to try to cover everything in one go.”

#8. Back up a theory with case studies

A great way to memorize theory is with case studies. In one experiment, students read a 32-chapter essay about a fictional country. Some chapters had examples related to the main topic and real life, while others did not. The more real-life examples close to the readers, the more accurately they remembered the chapter content.

Why are examples so effective? Because they use the brain’s natural tendency to recognize familiar images, Medina explains.

#9. Use visual materials

Visual images are remembered better than text or speech. Studies show that after 72 hours, a person recalls about 10 percent of what he hears. If the same information is presented as images, the figure rises to 65%. According to John Medina’s book, we remember text better than speech because the brain perceives it as a set of tiny pictures.

Visual images are the most reliable in memory. Even better if the image moves. After all, objects dangerous to our ancestors were constantly moving, and the brain has developed a complex system of neural connections to recognize them. That’s why Medina advises teachers to use animation more often.

The experts of getfinanceessay.com also suggest that teachers reconsider their presentations. Headlines, subheadings, and piles of text on a single slide are the worst way to present information to an audience. But the more simple images in a presentation, the better.

#10. Tell your students about the importance of sleep

Sleep deprivation impairs thought processes in every measurable way. Sleep deprivation affects attention, working memory, motor skills, the ability to act with purpose and think logically, as well as math and other abilities.

An experiment involving servicemen working with complex military equipment showed:

  • one night without sleep reduces cognitive ability by 30%;
  • two nights without sleep reduced cognitive ability by 60%.

In another study of sleep deprivation, participants slept no more than six hours for five nights. Their cognitive performance was the same as after 48 hours completely without sleep.

The point is that the brain “plays back” the day’s experiences during the slow-wave sleep phase. To put it simply, at night the information obtained is processed “offline.” Depriving ourselves of sleep prevents the brain from processing new information.

In one study, students were presented with several math problems and ways to solve them. They weren’t told, however, that there were simpler methods for coping with the tasks. The scientists wondered if there was any way to help the students guess these alternative solutions. It turned out that it could be done by sending students to bed with the thought of the assignment.

If you give students an assignment and just wait 12 hours, only 20% of them will find the most rational solution. If students sleep for 8 of those 12 hours, up to 60% will find the solution. It turns out that sleep makes our thinking three times more creative.

And it’s not just nighttime sleep that’s useful. Studies show that all of us have an inherent craving for a midday nap. Around lunchtime, the brain needs to rest, no matter what the host is doing, Medina explains. And a siesta break doesn’t have to be long. A NASA experiment showed that a daytime nap of only 26 minutes increased performance by 34 percent.

If you’re one of those students who work through the night on writing assignments, it’s time to delegate some of your responsibilities. Remember, sleep is more important. A nursing paper writing service can do the work for you. A qualified author will write any type of student paper for a high grade. They will also tell you steps to avoid plagiarizing in college papers.

To conclude

In 2008, the book “Brain Rules” by John Medina was first published. Then, probably, only a few teachers were interested in neuroscience. Today, more and more people understand how important it is to know how our brain works. Imagining how learning works at the neurophysiological level is a good help for a teacher.

Nathaniel Villa
Nathaniel Villa