How to Get the Brains of Your Students to Change

brain based learning

I am on a mission to help more educators become extraordinary this year. In this article, you will get an insight into how our brain works. Stay a learner for a moment and we can help you achieve the best professional year of your life.

Today, we will lock down one of the most core understandings about the human brain: how to get it to change. Let’s learn how to do this right. The reason you may care about this is because…

The Research:

Our topic is how to get the brains of your students to change. Seriously; is there any topic more important?

Okay, I plead guilty to being a bit enthusiastic about brain topics.

First, let’s clear out of the way any misperceptions. The brain is ALREADY CHANGING every day.

The brain changes for the better or the worse SLOWLY (maturation, home or school environment, nutrition, learning, fitness, etc.). The brain changes for the better or the worse FAST (head injury, poisons, trauma, new therapies, insights, etc.).

To get the brain to change at school, on purpose, is actually easy. You just have to know how. If you say, “I already know how to do it.”, my response is “How many years of gains do you get each school year you teach? What are your student achievement scores?” If you change it well, you’ll be above the district averages.

Much of it happens through a property called neuroplasticity. This property is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it is simply an intrinsic property of the human brain. That’s why our brain can change for the worse (like an addiction) or for the better (becoming more grateful) at any time.

There is strong evidence that neuronal plasticity is not an occasional event; it is constant! Why? To survive, humans must adapt constantly to environmental pressure, physiologic changes, and life experiences (Johansson, 2004).

Interestingly, the actual moment that cells make a connection at the synaptic level in the brain has been seen as early as within minutes of new learning. The process of gray matter adaptation has been observed via MRIs as early as 5-7 days following the practice (Driemeyer, et al., 2008) and as late as after 6 weeks of practice.

This new memory is ‘long-term potentiation’. WHAT????

New learning has occurred when the brain makes connections. The synapses between two neurons become stronger through greater frequency of use or intensity of experience. Hence, the neurons become sensitized to one another. Breaks and sleep allow the memories to become consolidated and integrated within other networks in your brain. Finally, by retrieving, rehearsing or recalling the content these neural networks become strengthened.

In the classroom, our brain does not treat all learning the same.

Our brain has both a “fast track” learning process and a slower, more durable structural gray matter plasticity track. These processes are occurring both at the molecular and synaptic level, as well as at larger scales of gray matter (Draganski and May, 2008).

Currently, the challenge is to explore in greater detail the processes of neuroplasticity and how to modulate them to achieve the best behavioral outcome.

Now, let’s explore the brain changing strategies in your classroom.

Practical Applications

When we “flesh out” the info above, the classroom “to do” list would look like this:

1. Select your content (or skill). Your student’s memories for facts and events (so-called declarative memories) are stored differently from the acquisition of skills (procedural memories). Yet the scientists who used to think our brain used a different set of neural circuits, now see an overlap between declarative and motor skill memories. This means, “It is OK to mix content and skill.”

2. Reactivate prior learning. Some students may have no experience with the topic or skill. If so, be sure to use priming and pre-exposure days and weeks ahead to avoid “blindsiding” the learner.

Discovering prior learning helps you plan the lesson better AND discover if there are students with false information that may inhibit your teaching and their learning. Those need to be corrected before starting.

3. Get buy-in (arousal plus relevancy). Arousal alerts the brain and activates the strong learning neurotransmitters, like dopamine. Buy-in links the learning with something that the students find relevant or worth pursuing.

4. Interdependency (partner or team). While not all learning should be with others, it does help with accountability and fun. The social partner(s) may need some of your input on how to be a “good” partner.

5. Quick initial learning curve. Ensure students learn quickly at the outside from easy material. Out of a 15-minute first exposure, half should be reactivating prior learning.

6. Error correction with quality feedback. Always build in a way to check for understanding.

7. Increasing challenge & complexity. Without this increase, students get bored and may quit on you. Have a plan to “stair-step” the learning.

8. Consecutive minutes: For both skill and content learning, use short chunks of 10-15 minutes at a time. Do this each day, for multiple times, about 3-5 days per week.

9. Break often for consolidation & other processing activities (plus a good night’s sleep). After 10-15 minutes, allow time to check for understanding, processing personal insights and making connections. Then get back to work. Later, at night, encourage a good sleep. The role of stabilizing a memory, which helps make it resistant to other content interference, is critical to orchestrate memories long after their initial acquisition (Robertson, E. M. (2012). A new motor skill memory continues to be processed “off-line” in the hippocampus, during consolidation. This replay can be observed in quiet rest, an alternative activity, as well as sleep. For example, a motor skill can be enhanced by 20-30% over a night of sleep.

10. Practice retrieval and use the content. Studying is very ineffective, but retrieval is highly effective. Ask students to retrieve their prior learning without cues. This is hard mental work and good for the brain. Continually ask for both details and big picture, since they are both crucial. Use Q & A or mind mapping to create large concept maps of the subject with a partner.


Using both fMRI and MRIs, scientists can now see new growth of language-related brain areas and new activation areas after reading and language computer games. Scientific Learning was the original company that designed and sold learning that was engineered by pioneering neuroscientists Steve Miller, Paula Tallal and Michael Merzenich.

They used the principles of brain plasticity to reorganize the “reading areas” of the brain and boost reading scores. If you or your school is struggling, every student in your school can get an online tutor with Reading Assistant. Check out: .

In closing, you CAN have the best school year of your life. Implement ideas from this article and get ready for a miracle!

Eric Jensen, PhD
CEO, Jensen Learning


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