Power of the human brain

The science behind learning: how understanding educational neuroscience can make you a better teacher.

This is a guest post by science and clinical company SRG.

Teaching is a demanding profession. Keeping on top of the latest scientific breakthroughs is not only impractical, it is nigh-on impossible with teachers’ time restrictions

Even if you do find the time to sift through academic journals, science magazines, blogs and click-bait pseudoscience, it can be difficult to know which studies can positively affect the way you teach. Even for science teachers. But there are many studies into how the brain works which can potentially have a big impact on the way we teach.

One of the main aspects of teaching is getting your students to not only accrue knowledge, but to critically understand it. And whilst you all obviously go way beyond your standard responsibilities to achieve this, with a little understanding of neuroscience, you can engage with your students on a much deeper level.

To make things a little easier, we’ve compiled some of our scientific knowledge about the brain, and batted away the pseudoscience to give you an easy-to-digest post that will help you understand some ways in which science can improve the learning experience for both you and your pupils.

The science of stress

Whilst it may seem logical to think that creating a stress-free classroom environment is key to good learning, the science suggests otherwise. For students to learn effectively, there needs to be some element of stress — which, as scientists, we measure in cortisol.

Having low levels of cortisol — associated with a relaxed environment — induces low levels of performance. Whilst high levels of stress has the same effect, as the brain enters fight or flight mode. In both of these instances, less cortisol is produced and the brain is unable to reach anywhere close to its peak.

Creating moderate levels of stress in the classroom, however, is hugely beneficial to learning. As with many things in life, creating a happy medium is the key to success. The question is, how do you create an environment which achieves this? Especially when you don’t want to create a toxic classroom experience for your students.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t have to be painful. It could be as simple as restructuring your lessons in such a way that makes them unique every time. If you started your lesson with classical music before, change it up and start with hip-hop. If you finish the week on a Friday with private study, change the day each week. These minor uncertainties should induce the right levels of cortisol in the brain for optimum learning.

Not all students, however, respond to changes in stress levels the same. But as a teacher who interacts with your students every week, you will know which buttons to press at the right time. Just keep pushing those buttons if you want your students to learn optimally.

Cognitive tutoring

Students should spend their time in the classroom learning, and their time at home doing homework, right? Well, perhaps not. Educating using a ‘flipped learning,' or ‘flipped classroom’ model is starting to take root in the US. Despite this, it’s not widely known or used in the UK. But the model is built on sound evidence, and is proven to enhance learning — especially when paired with cognitive tutoring.

A ‘flipped learning’ model questions everything we know about teaching. Essentially, in ‘flipped learning’ students do their homework and practice during school hours, and learning in their own free time. It sounds counterintuitive, but it has been proven to improve grades, help weaker STEM students, and reduce stress.

But where does cognitive tutoring come into ‘flipped learning,’ and what actually is it? The reason cognitive tutoring is relevant here is that it is a big part of making ‘flipped learning’ a success. Cognitive tutoring uses computerised tutors built with artificial intelligence to help students do activities, rather than just read them.

One of the biggest criticisms of ‘flipped learning’ is that students aren’t capable, or can’t be trusted to truly learn outside of the classroom. But cognitive tutoring not only gives students high-quality learning activities across a number of different subject areas, it feeds data back to the teacher who can then see which students are engaging, which students are improving, and which students aren’t working out of hours. Cognitive tutoring puts power and knowledge in both students and teachers’ hands.

The software identifies the errors students make and let’s them know — then builds future questions based around the student’s weaknesses. Over time, the AI will build on those weaknesses, not wasting time on knowledge that the student is already comfortable with. Essentially, it allows every students to have a highly personalised learning experience — something that is growing ever-harder with increasing class sizes. It also allows teachers like you to focus your time on things like personal development and relationship management.

In a recent study of cognitive tutoring in mathematics lessons, students over the course of a year overachieved by 8% when compared to other schools — this could be the difference between an A and a B, or a C and a D.

Is it possible for teachers to keep up with the latest science trends?

We already know that teachers’ are almost always too busy to keep up with the latest science trends that could impact teaching. But we also know that it’s important, and can have a positive impact. Hopefully, with flipped learning in place, you will have more time for personal development — though we do understand that it depends on your school’s willingness to buy cognitive tutoring software. Regardless, there are a few quick and easy ways to access the latest developments.

One of the best, and easiest ways to find out what’s going on in the world of science and technology is to sign up to New Scientist weekly newsletter. Articles are handpicked by the editors, and you won’t have to trawl through the entire magazine to get the latest news. Obviously, you won’t get ALL of the science news, but you will get the most significant and most interesting.

It’s also worth checking out science blogs. Our blog at SRG deals with a number of issues and developments in the world of clinical, science and engineering, but there are other great science blogs out there too.

Science and technology are going to be vital to our future. Every major issue in society today is affected by it. But for you, as a teacher, it can make a positive impact on the way you teach. Keep on top of the world of science, and your job may get a lot more fruitful and rewarding.

If you are looking for a new teaching role for September, check out the latest jobs in your area, or get in touch today. 

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