Very interesting article on Brain Research and Instructional Strategies

Posted: May 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

Brain Research, Instructional Strategies, and E-Learning: Making the Connection

September 28, 2009

Instructional strategies and their supporting tactics are the heart of instructional design. Research is giving designers much valuable information about the way the human brain works and how humans learn. We can use this information to guide our designs and strategy choices, and to improve learning. Here is the research, the strategies, and tactics that will help you use the findings in your own designs.

Success is what happens when opportunity meets planning. Instructional design is a type of planning. You have probably planned for a variety of events in your life: vacations, weddings, or your financial future.

When you are planning a trip to a vacation destination, there are options. You can drive, or you can take a train or a plane. In the same way, planning instruction involves a variety of options (strategies) for helping your students achieve their destination: learning.

This article is about applying brain-compatible instructional strategies in an e-Learning environment. In general, a strategy is a plan, method, or series of maneuvers (stratagems) for obtaining a specific goal or result. Instructional strategies have the goal of helping students to learn and teaching students how to learn.

Advances in brain-scan technology provide information about brain function and learning. The most powerful findings indicate that the way we teach can physically change the brain. This in turn encourages us to teach with the brain in mind. Teaching with the brain in mind means applying the strategies you already know in a different way, or learning new strategies and how to apply them.

I’ve organized the content into four sections. First, I provide some background on the roots of brain-compatible learning strategies stemming from what research has learned via brain-scan technologies. Then I discuss the instructional strategies research has found to be most effective. Next, I’ll provide a structure to aid in deciding when to use a strategy. Finally, I’ll focus on the tactics for implementing a few of the brain-compatible strategies in an e-Learning environment.

Brain scan technology and learning

Neuroscience, using brain-imaging technologies, is finding out a lot about how the brain works. Some of the discoveries have implications for instruction. There are two major categories of brain-imaging technologies: there are those technologies that look at brain structure (the function of a particular part of the brain), and there are those that look at brain functions (how the parts interact with each other).

Research using brain-imaging technologies yields information about the processes of learning and remembering (see Figure 1). Knowing how the processes work allows us to identify pivotal elements in the learning environment. Instructional design can then incorporate them into learning strategies, leveraging them to enhance student learning and make our products more effective.

The major research findings with implications for teaching are:

  • Learning and retention are different.
  • There are different types of memory with different characteristics.
  • Memories are not stored intact.
  • Any form of logical grouping facilitates perception, comprehension, and retention.
  • No one teaching strategy is best.

Brain research findings have been used to gauge a variety of instructional strategies in order to identify those that mesh with how the brain works. In the book, Classroom Instruction that Works, the authors identify nine instructional strategies that affect student achievement. In order of effectiveness, these are:

  • Using comparing, contrasting, classifying, analogies, and metaphors
  • Summarizing and note taking (keyword outlines)
  • Reinforcing effort and giving praise
  • Homework and practice
  • Nonlinguistic representations (graphic organizers)
  • Cooperative learning
  • Setting objectives and providing feedback
  • Generating hypotheses
  • Questions, cues, and advanced organizers

You may find that some strategies lend themselves more easily to the e-Learning environment than others. For example, strategies that contain socially interactive components, such as cooperative learning, are a bit more challenging and more suited to Web 2.0 applications.

A description of each strategy

I combine the comparing, contrasting, classifying, analogies, and metaphor  into the category of bridging strategies. The intent of all of them is to aid the learner by connecting new information (bridging) to something the learner already knows. Brain research tells us that the brain physically changes when we learn, and that memories are not stored in a single location in the brain. Changing the brain is demanding work. When you reduce the amount of the brain that needs changing (that is, the amount to be learned), there is a better chance of new information getting into long-term storage and aiding recall. Connecting new knowledge to information that is already in long-term storage is like the difference between cooking a prepared microwave dinner and preparing a dinner from fresh ingredients. Bridging to information already known (prepared ingredients) saves all the effort and energy of cleaning and cutting, and reduces cooking time.

Summarizing and note taking reduce the amount of information the learner needs to get into long-term storage. Each is a form of chunking strategy. The process filters information by deleting material, substituting material, and keeping material. The amount of information to be retained is directly proportional to the amount of energy and storage the brain must produce. For example, it is easier for you to remember a summation of the research findings with implications for teaching, than it is to remember all five of them. A summary could look like this: “Learning and retention are different, logical grouping helps, and no strategy is best.” Further, substituting in a summary allows for the use of information that is already known, and is easier for the brain than acquiring and storing new information. If you are already familiar with the different types of memory (short-term, working, and long-term), you could substitute that knowledge for “there are different types of memory with different characteristics” from the list of research findings presented earlier.

Reinforcing effort and giving praise can affect a learner’s motivation. Motivation is germane to learning because learning is an active process requiring conscious and deliberate activity. Learning involves the brain, the nervous system, and the environment in a process where they interplay to acquire information and skills. Motivation is like a car’s accelerator: it controls the cognitive energy supplied to the brain. The higher the level of motivation, the more focus and determination can be given to learning.

One of the keys to effective praise is that it focuses on the effort the learner has applied in accomplishing a task. Praise for outcomes that are achieved with little effort gives learners the message that effort is not valued. Avoid the unjustified “Great Job!” for efforts that require little more than clicking to the next screen.

Homework and practice fall into the general area of repetition strategies. Repetition strengthens the connection created in the brain when learning takes place. It is similar to blazing a new path through a jungle. The first time takes a lot of effort. The second time takes a little less effort and so on, until it becomes a relatively easy trail to transverse. Homework lends itself better to the asynchronous e-Learning environment that allows for independent study. Practice and e-Learning go together like chips and salsa. If practice is the chips, the computer is the salsa. The computer can tirelessly add a variety of flavors and spice to the chips. Some of the various flavors of practice include:

  • matching,
  • flash cards,
  • concert review,
  • games,
  • fill in the blank,
  • question and answer,
  • paraphrasing,
  • selecting,
  • crossword puzzles, and
  • word searches.

Figure 2 is an example of a practice session that is based on a slot machine. The learner spins each of the variables separately (randomization) and then selects an answer by clicking from options on the right. Feedback appears in the lower right corner. This example is used to memorize radiation exposure limits based on the variables of the regulatory agency setting the limit, and the parts of the body it applies to. The same method could be used for multiplication tables or other situations that contain two variables.

Figure 2 Slot machine example. Used with permission of Fluor Hanford Co. Richland, WA.


Nonlinguistic representations (graphic organizers are from the family of spatial strategies. These strategies mimic how the brain’s storage system works.

Cooperative learning is an instructional strategy in which students work together in groups, usually with the goal of completing a specific task. Brain research indicates information from the environment temporarily resides in our working memory. It also tells us that the longer information is processed in working memory, the greater the probability that retention will happen (long term memory). One factor influencing the amount of processing time in working memory is motivation.

The elements of a cooperative learning exercise include:

  • An esprit de corps (group members are linked with each other in a way that any one member cannot succeed unless everyone succeeds)
  • Defined goal or objective
  • Lines of communication sufficient to handle the media necessary to complete the objective (more crucial in an e-Learning environment)
  • Clear roles and responsibilities for the group
  • Individual and group accountability

Cooperative learning lends itself to the Learning 2.0 environment. Members of the group must have the necessary technical and interpersonal skills to be successful. Small groups of three to four members are the most effective.

Setting objectives and providing feedback have two influences on learning. The first is motivational. Objectives provide a finish line and tell the learners when they will have completed a learning task. Without an objective, a learning adventure would begin at the edge of an abyss that learners can’t see across. Objectives can generate intrinsic motivation when the learning task is related to the learners’ needs. The other function of objectives is to allow the brain to recall previous strategies and tactics that have worked in similar situations. More on instructional objectives can be found in my earlier Learning Solutions article, “Good Beginnings: Leveraging the Strengths and Avoiding the Weaknesses of the e-Learning Medium” (September 27, 2007).

Generating hypotheses strengthens the connections to information by activating the recall of information from memory storage (strengthening the neural pathways) and inherently involves motivation by activating a learner’s curiosity. This strategy challenges the learner to propose an outcome based upon changes in the environment that affect the traits of a concept.

Questions, cues, and advanced organizers are strategies that initiate an activity in which the learner needs to activate prior knowledge. Questions in this context are not the rhetorical version. These questions are meant to elicit inferences or require the learner to analyze information. Questions are like the starting points of a maze; they send the learner into the corridors of knowledge in search of the goal of enlightenment. The Socratic Method is a version of questioning that leads the learner to a particular train of thought or conclusion. An example of this method in an e-Learning environment would be using questions in problem-solving scenarios to guide learners to a desired conclusion.

Cues are similar to instructional objectives. Cues prepare the learner for what is to come, or provide guidance as to future learning content. Common uses of cues in e-Learning are the hints found in the lower portion of a screen along with a “What’s next” statement. Cues can also stimulate curiosity and increase motivation.

Advanced organizers are a bridging strategy that lays the groundwork for connecting what a learner knows to what is to be learned.

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