Getting Priorities Right

What should your priorities be this year? From a personal standpoint, managing your health through good food, exercise, and stress management are pretty smart paths to follow. After all, if you’re not at your best, both you and your students miss out.

From a professional standpoint, ensuring that students become strong learners should be a top priority.

Since you don’t have time for every idea on earth, what factors will support your student’s growth the most? For now, we’ll focus on just one of the top five factors that drive student achievement. The study we draw from is grounded in work from several thousand teachers, so the sample size is impressive.

Focusing on what matters most is one sure way to “disaster-proof” your teaching.

PART ONE: Research

A human being is born less able to cope on its own than any other mammal. However, this provides the brain with extraordinary flexibility to adapt to its environment. The method it uses is a monster’s appetite for environmental adaption based on experience. Yet, I’ve always said that our brain is primarily a “gist processor.” That means that we are more interested in being effective (goal acquisition) than we are being efficient, being a deep thinker, or knowing a lot of background. In the classroom, this means that most kids (unless we shape their brains differently) would much rather get quirky headlines, YouTube clips, and do activities all day.

To become effective, the brain relies on an exquisite collection of feedback processors.

It is the feedback on our experiences that help us correct our senses, thoughts, and behaviors. Learning which action leads to the most beneficial outcome in a given situation is one of the central components of adaptive behavior. But, if you offer just content all day our brains “hit the wall” pretty fast and learning goes DOWN (Russell, et al., 1984). It takes time to process the learning, so that’s another limiter (Klingberg, 2000). Some have found that it’s good to slow the pace (Wood, 2002).

This suggests that teaching “too much, too fast” is a bad idea. But, it also suggests that what kids do get, they may get wrong.

This leads us to why the classroom factor that has the greatest impact on classroom achievement is (drum roll please)… feedback (Hattie, 2009).

Many of the original studies on feedback were done using subjects in gambling paradigms, where mistakes can cost and better behaviors can bring rewards. However, recent indications suggest that the dopaminergic system (the good feelings of a reward) is also involved in tasks in which only cognitive feedback is provided (Daniel and Pollmann, 2010). If this is true, there ought to be evidence in which classroom feedback in the form of task-only (vs. teacher directed) excellence significantly raises the learning.

In fact, the factor that has the greatest effect on student achievement is on-going feedback. The type, duration, form, intensity, and developmental appropriateness of feedback could fill volumes. But on a raw level, any thoughtful feedback that students get in class is far better than none at all. This helps you understand WHY nearly any feedback-driven strategy, even quizzes, will support greater achievement (Logan et al., 2011).

PART TWO: Applications

Here are some guidelines for enhancing your results from using more feedback.

Generally, feedback is either positive to affirm or corrective to illuminate a mistake. Learning from mistakes speeds up changes in the brain. Getting affirmation for right answers helps build confidence and love of learning. These two approaches result in two different outcomes.

The question is, which is more important in your teaching moment: acting for either the general situation (e.g. correcting a test for the whole class) or for a specific student that you work with?

Those are ongoing decisions to make. As an example, in language learning, when students get the correct answer after an incorrect response, initial feedback increased final retention by as much as 494%! However, feedback after the correct responses were given made little difference either immediately or at a delay (Pashler, et al., 2005). In general, give feedback that describes the content, not the person. For example, make it specific and say, “Put the semicolon right after THIS type of phrase, not that type.”

How can you give students more feedback? The following are some practical suggestions you were waiting for.

Use Gallery walks, have students build a physical model, provide games with competition, implement using an author’s chair, small group discussion, use audio or video feedback, peer editing, student presentations, hypothesis building and testing, have students use a checklist, engage them in brainstorming, compare and contrast work, pre-testing, interim quizzes, partner quizzes, and the use of a rubric. Here’s a suggestion: it is far better to use lower-quality, less detailed feedback constantly, than to give students more detailed feedback weekly or monthly.

One last thing: each of the authors of the studies used above would like to offer this caveat: Not every study has been done with every subject, with every student age, or under every condition. Be perceptive and know your students and the situation. You can get great results, but keep after the big mission and don’t get hung up the details.

Your partner in learning,

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

Daniel, R. and Pollman, S. (2010) Comparing the Neural Basis of Monetary Reward and Cognitive Feedback during Information-Integration Category Learning. The Journal of Neuroscience, January 6, 30(1): 47-55.

Hattie, J. A. (1992a). Towards a model of schooling: A synthesis of meta-analyses. Australian Journal of Education, 36, 5–13.

Hattie, J. A. (1993a). Measuring the effects of schooling. SET, 2, 1–4.

Hattie, J. A. (1993b, July). What works: A model of the teaching-learning interaction. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Teacher Education Association, Fremantle, Australia.

Hattie, J.A C. (2002). What are the attributes of excellent teachers? In Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? (pp. 3-26). Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Hattie J (2009) Visible Learning; a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement London; Routledge

Klingberg, T. (2000). Limitations in information processing in the human brain: neuroimaging of dual task performance and working memory tasks. Prog Brain Res., 126, 95-102.

Logan JM, Thompson AJ, Marshak DW. (2011) Testing to enhance retention in human anatomy. Anat Sci Educ. Jul 29.

Pashler H, Cepeda NJ, Wixted JT, Rohrer D. (2005) When does feedback facilitate learning of words? J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. Jan; 31(1): 3-10.

Petty, G. (2006) Evidence-based Teaching; a practical approach Cheltenham; Nelson Thornes.

Russell IJ, Hendricson WD, Herbert RJ. (1984) Effects of lecture information density on medical student achievement. J Med Educ. Nov; 59 (11 Pt 1): 881-9.

Wood, C. (2002, Mar). Changing the pace of school: slowing down the day to improve the quality of learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(7): 545-50.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Pete Reed

5 replies
  1. Patty Phillips
    Patty Phillips says:

    I am a physical education teacher for grades 3,4,&5. I am trying to convince my faculty that movement improves learning. Our main discipline consequence is to take recess away. I of course, dislike this decision and would like to support my displeasure with “brain support” material. Could you direct me to those resources?

  2. Stella KALOUDIS
    Stella KALOUDIS says:

    Hello ,

    After 25 years in England where I used to be a language and IT teacher in a very spcial school applying all of Gardner’s and Jensen’s and Co’s practices , I m now desperately trying to obtain a formal approcal to teach other teachers and trainers these methods.
    I have done all my homework , ie re reading all the books printed (they’re all in English/american mostly) BUT i can’t find any trace of any Confirmed trainer in FRANCE!
    I m interested in obtaining a qualification for being one.
    any idea?

    Stella KALOUDIS

  3. Eric
    Eric says:

    Hi Patty

    The scientific evidence that supports physical education/recess in schools that it is overwhelming. In fact, any educator or policy-maker could easily be accused of abuse, neglect, gross negligence or wanton disregard for the welfare of students if there is NO physical education. See the rest of this post below…

    Does Exercise Improve Learning in Children?

    Recess and physical education time has steadily decreased or been eliminated in school districts around the nation, displaced by more time focused on academics. Even though research validates physical activity guidelines for children, which encourage exercise at least 60 minutes a day for physical benefits, exercise and its effects on a child’s ability to learn had not been researched widely until the latter part of the 21st century. With the advent of sophisticated technologies, science is now able to prove that exercise benefits the brain in numerous ways thus benefiting and improving learning in children.

    Brain Development and Learning
    A baby is born with a fully-developed brain with 100 billion neurons or brain cells, each one having the potential to connect with 15,000 other cells. These neurons are awaiting instruction on how to connect and communicate and facilitate learning. Proper nutrition combined with a nurturing and stimulating environment all contribute to the ability of the brain to learn.

    Brain on Exercise
    In his research that was published in his book, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”, Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey explains the major benefits of exercise on the brain, how it can enhance a child’s attention, memory, focus and ability to retain what is taught and describes in layman’s terms how exercise accomplishes this, as well as providing case studies. 

Three major factors explain why and how exercise benefits the brain. First exercise increases cellular components which support the brain’s systems responsible for learning, decision-making and memory among others. Secondly, exercise improves the environment of the brain cells by releasing hormones, neurotransmitters and activates BDNF, which he calls the “Miracle Gro for the brain” that enhance neural pathways for learning, and other growth factors, making it easy for brain cells to adapt or learn new information. Thirdly, exercise, more than any other factor, grows brain cells, called neurogenesis. More brain cells means more room for learning.

    Types of Exercise to Improve Learning
    Currently, research has focused on aerobic activity, ranging from moderate to vigorous, when testing the efficacy of exercise on the brain. “The Effect of Acute Treadmill Walking on Cognitive Control and Academic Achievement in Preadolescent Children”, concluded that, “these findings indicate that single, acute bouts of moderately-intense aerobic exercise (i.e. walking) may improve the cognitive control of attention in preadolescent children, and further support the use of moderate acute exercise as a contributing factor for increasing attention and academic performance.”

    Moving to Learn
    Neurokinesiologist Jean Blaydes Madigan developed Action Based Learning which provides teachers with ways to implement moving into the classroom setting. Madigan contends that children learn better if they can move because movement provides the brain with fuel in the form of oxygen and glucose, increases spatial awareness, engages the body in static and dynamic balance which aids focus and attention, integrates coordination of the body with organization of thoughts in the brain’s hemispheres and uses repetitive body movements to train the brain in sequencing patterns. “Students engaged in Action Based Learning improve memory retention, reinforce academic concepts, balance brain chemicals while experiencing whole-brain, whole-body learning. Educational research suggests that about 85 percent of school age students are predominantly kinesthetic learners.”

    Because of recent interest in the scientific findings linking improved learning with exercise, legislation is being proposed in some states to mandate physical education for its students. Teachers are getting creative in ways to get students moving in the classroom including the use of video games. Parents and school administrators are collaborating to get children more active before and after school with such programs as the Walking School Bus in which parents take turns walking children to school. Besides exercise’s salutory benefits of reducing stress, improving mood and health, regular exercise, sustained over the lifespan, can maintain and sustain your child’s ability to keep learning.

    Read more:
    ScienceDaily (July 1, 2011) — When schools cut physical education programs so students can spend more time in the classroom, they may be missing a golden opportunity to promote learning, according to research presented on May 1, at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Denver.

    The study adds to growing evidence that exercise is good not only for the body but also the mind. It also shows that physical education and academic instruction need not be mutually exclusive.

    Researchers Kathryn L. King, MD, and Carly J. Scahill, DO, pediatric residents at the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital, led by William S. Randazzo, MD, FAAP, and James T. McElligott, MD, sought to determine how implementing a daily physical activity program that incorporated classroom lessons would affect student achievement. First- through sixth-graders at an academically low-scoring elementary school in Charleston, S.C., took part in the program 40 minutes a day, five days a week. Prior to initiation of the program, students spent 40 minutes per week in physical education classes.

    The school nurse was awarded several grants that were used to educate school administrators and revamp several classrooms into two gyms that housed equipment for an All Minds Exercise (AMX) room for older students and an Action Based Learning (ABL) lab for the younger schoolchildren.

    “The teachers, administrators, parents and students at the school were brave enough to think out of the box to help the children learn in new ways,” Dr. King said.

    First- and second-graders moved through stations in the ABL lab, learning developmentally appropriate movement skills while basic academic skills were reinforced. For example, children traced shapes on the ground while sitting on scooters and hopped through ladders while naming colors on each rung.
    Students in third through sixth grades had access to exercise equipment with TV monitors. For instance, a treadmill had a monitor that played geography lessons as the student ran through the scene, and a rock-climbing wall was outfitted with numbers that changed as they climbed to help students work on math skills.

    Researchers compared state standardized reading test scores for the year before and the year after initiation of the program. Each student took standardized tests in the fall and spring. In the fall, the results included an individualized goal for each student to reach on the spring test. Researchers measured the number of students who met or exceeded their goal score in the spring.

    Results showed that the time spent out of a traditional classroom in order to increase physical education did not hurt students’ academic achievement. In fact, student test scores improved. Specifically, the percentage of students reaching their goal on the state tests increased from 55 percent before the program was initiated to 68.5 percent after the program was initiated.

    “These data indicate that when carefully designed physical education programs are put into place, children’s academic achievement does not suffer,” Dr. King said.

    Dr. Scahill added, “there is growing substantial evidence that this kind of physical activity may help improve academic behavior, cognitive skills and attitudes.”

    Hill L, Williams JH, Aucott L, Milne J, Thomson J, Greig J, Munro V,
    Mon-Williams M. Exercising attention within the classroom. Dev Med Child Neurol.
    2010 Mar 29

    Dev Med Child Neurol. 2010 Mar 29. [Epub ahead of print]
    Exercising attention within the classroom.
    Hill L, Williams JH, Aucott L, Milne J, Thomson J, Greig J, Munro V, Mon-Williams M.
    Child Health, College of Medicine and Life Sciences, University of Aberdeen, UK.

    Aim To investigate whether increased physical exercise during the school day influenced subsequent cognitive performance in the classroom. Method A randomized, crossover-design trial (two weeks in duration) was conducted in six mainstream primary schools (1224 children aged 8-11y). No data on sex was available. Children received a teacher-directed, classroom-based programme of physical exercise, delivered approximately 30 minutes after lunch for 15 minutes during one week and no exercise programme during the other (order counterbalanced across participants). At the end of each school day, they completed one of five psychometric tests (paced serial addition, size ordering, listening span, digit-span backwards, and digit-symbol encoding), so that each test was delivered once after exercise and once after no exercise. Results General linear modelling analysis demonstrated a significant interaction between intervention and counterbalance group (p8 months) overall success in acquiring a novel vocabulary. Peripheral levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and catecholamines (dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine) were assessed prior to and after the interventions as well as after learning. We found that vocabulary learning was 20 percent faster after intense physical exercise as compared to the other two conditions. This condition also elicited the strongest increases in BDNF and catecholamine levels. More sustained BDNF levels during learning after intense exercise were related to better short-term learning success, whereas absolute dopamine and epinephrine levels were related to better intermediate (dopamine) and long-term (epinephrine) retentions of the novel vocabulary. Thus, BDNF and two of the catecholamines seem to be mediators by which physical exercise improves learning.

    New findings add to the body of research that suggests exercise makes our minds stronger and helps maintain cognitive abilities as we age.

    At the University of Illinois, a team of researchers administered two cognitive tests (one more difficult than the other) to 20 men and women on separate days (McAuley, et al. 2002). On the first day, the tests were administered without exercise; on the second day, the tests were given after running on a treadmill for 30 minutes at moderate to hard pace. Though exercise seemed to have no effect on the results of the easier test, the exercised subjects answered more questions correctly on the difficult exam. In addition, brain-wave measurements showed that the participants’ decision-making abilities improved by a significant amount after the treadmill run.

    Previous research suggests that there are several neurological mechanisms at work when we work out, including the following:

    • Exercise increases the blood supply to the brain, which means increased oxygen and better brain performance. In a study by Greenough (1996), one group of rats was given free access to a running wheel and another ran on a treadmill for an hour a day. After 30 days, both groups had substantial increases in capillary density in their cerebellums. A group of sedentary rats showed no increase.

    • Exercise can also increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and stimulates the growth and repair of neurons, particularly in the hippocampus (Cotman & Berchtold 2002-b, Gomez-Pinilla et al. 2001). However, too much rigorous exercise can trigger the release of stress hormones which can counteract BDNF production (Schaaf et al. 1999; Vollmayr et al., 2000).

    • In another new study, exercise was found to mobilize gene expression profiles connected to brain plasticity processes; in other words, exercise regulates the expression of genes in areas of the brain connected to learning and memory (Cotman & Engesser-Cesar 2002-a).

    Action Steps:

    • Encourage learners to exercise over a lifetime. Most researchers believe that enhanced BDNF production can improve or at least maintain our cognitive functioning as we grow older.
    • Tests might be best administered after periods of active play and participation in sports.
    • When attention is waning in the classroom, have students stand up and do some form of physical exercise (e.g., jumping jacks, running in place) at their desks.

    Cotman, C.W.; C. Engesser-Cesar. 2002-a. Exercise enhances and protects brain function. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 39(2): 75-9.

    Cotman, C.W.; N.C. Berchtold. 2002-b. Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity. Trends Neuroscience. 25(6): 295-301.

    Fillit, et al. 2002. Achieving and maintaining cognitive vitality with aging. Mayo Clin Proc. 77(7): 681-96.

    Gomez-Pinilla, F; Z. Ying; P. Opazo; et al. 2001. Differential regulation by exercise of BDNF and NT-3 in rat spinal cord and skeletal muscle. Eur J Neurosci. 13(6): 1078-84.

    McAuley, E; A. Kramer; A. Belopolsky; E. Snook. 2002. Aging, Physical Activity and Executive Control Function. Annual conference of the American College of Sports Medicine.

    Schaaf, M.J.; R.M. Sibug; R. Duurland; et al. 1999. Corticosterone effects on BDNF mRNA expression in the rat hippocampus during morris water maze training. Stress. 3(2): 173-83.

    Vollmayr, B; S. Keck; F.A. Henn; P. Schloss. 2000. Acute stress decreases serotonin transporter mRNA in the raphe pontis but not in other raphe nuclei of the rat. Neuroscience Letter. 290(2): 109-12.

    Eveland-Sayers BM, Farley RS, Fuller DK, Morgan DW, Caputo JL. (2009) Physical fitness and academic achievement in elementary school children. J Phys Act Health. 2009 Jan;6(1):99-104

    Sibley, B. and Etnier, J. (2002) The Effects Of Physical Activity On Cognition In Children: A Meta-Analysis. Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise. 34(5) Supplement 1:S214, May.

    Pelligrini, A. And Bohn, C. (2003) Pellegrini &The Role Of Recess In Children’s Cognitive Performance. Educational Researcher, 34(1) 13-19.

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