Brain-Based Learning Techniques for Class

Brain-based learning isn’t a new concept, but it’s enjoying renewed attention thanks to the teacher accountability movement begun by President George W. Bush and continued by President Barack Obama. In a nutshell, teachers who use brain-based techniques don their “neuroscientist” hats and focus on creating experiences that cater to the inner workings of their students’ brains. The result: better learning experiences and better retention.

The “Why” and “How” of Brain-Based Learning Techniques


Hundreds of different variables affect how well your students digest information. Neuroscientific research suggests that some of the most important variables that impact learning include physical activity, social health, and the pace at which information is presented. Thankfully, you can harness and control many of the variables that make or break learning by using the following techniques.

Incorporate Frequent “Brain Breaks”

Given the mounting pressure that teachers face to crank out successful test-takers, it’s understandably tempting to cut recess, gym, and other movement activities in favor of sitting still and studying. However, taking a five-minute brain break to exercise the body and refresh the mind actually is more effective than subjecting kids to marathon teaching sessions in which they tend to become overwhelmed and fatigued.

Why it’s effective: Studies show that the brain absorbs and retains more information when the body is exercised periodically. Movement stimulates the flow of two important neurochemicals, noradrenaline and dopamine, which prime the brain for learning. It erases sedentary fatigue, increases heart rate, and improves circulation, all of which impact the success of a lesson.

How to implement this technique: Some teachers incorporate brain breaks by popping in a dance-along video or DVD, such as “The Sid Shuffle” from the movie “Ice Age” or, for younger kids, “Get the Sillies Out” by Just Dance Kids. Others use activity cards that prescribe brief, exhilarating activities such as “Mingle, Mingle, Group!” “Freeze Dance,” “Simon Says,” and “Animal Pretend.” The Internet abounds with brain break ideas; do some research to find activities that appeal to you, or consider creating your own. Key points to remember are that brain breaks last only a few minutes and, to avoid chaos and injury, they must be defined by safety rules.

Make Time for Social and Emotional Learning

As a teacher, you’re undoubtedly aware that some students struggle with developing adequate social and emotional skills. A growing number of school districts in the U.S. have adopted Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curricula to combat this.

Why it’s effective: Research shows that SEL curriculum can boost test scores by as much as 11 percent and decrease classroom behavior problems by nine percent. You probably won’t have to look very hard to find an SEL program — SEL trainings and curricula are sprouting up across the U.S. For example, teachers in Illinois can receive SEL training from the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership. Teachers in Michigan get their SEL ideas from the K-12 Michigan Model for Health curriculum.

You can learn more about SEL even if your school district hasn’t enriched you with professional development yet.

How to implement this technique: How can you afford to fit yet another curriculum into your jam-packed days of reading, writing, and arithmetic? The simple answer, of course, is that you can’t afford NOT to find time for SEL.

If you’re looking for practical ways to integrate SEL in a time-saving manner, consider the way that master teacher Chris Opitz of Anchorage, Alaska, sets the foundation for cooperative learning during a math lesson in this video. Among other things, Opitz encourages his kids to follow regular lesson routines, display positive regard for each other during the lesson, and explain concepts to one another in their own polite words.

Teach Smaller Chunks

We all know that new information, like food, is best digested in small chunks. Scaffolding and pacing are age-old techniques that teachers spend their careers trying to perfect, but new research suggests that the chunks of information that we impart should be even smaller than previously thought.

Why it’s effective: George Miller’s 1956 cognitive load theory suggests that the human brain can only manipulate about seven pieces of information at a time; hence, the seven-digit phone number. Think about, however, that when a seven-digit phone number is chunked into two smaller pieces, it’s even easier to remember. Current research suggests that young, malleable brains work best with no more than four chunks of new information at a time.

How to implement this technique: Eric Jensen, neuroscientist and author of “Teaching With the Brain in Mind,” recommends that educators “teach in small chunks, process the learning, and then rest the brain.” Jensen suggests spending only 4-8 consecutive minutes on more complex material and 8-15 minutes on less complex information. Spurts of teaching should be cushioned with review and brain breaks for optimum retention, according to the latest neuroscientific research.

And Much, Much More

The wellspring of brain-based teaching techniques available to teachers doesn’t end here. Neuroscientists have uncovered many other factors that impact student learning. There’s the concept of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain’s neurons continue to rearrange information and forge new pathways throughout life.

There’s the relationship between fine arts and brain development; as it turns out, music and other artistic endeavors play a critical role in the development of a healthy brain. There’s the growing body of research suggesting that faulty brain circuitry, such as that found in autism, could actually be rewired with proper intervention.

A teacher’s job is more complex and daunting today than ever before. The good news is that you’re not in this boat alone. Educational neuroscientists have made many discoveries that can simplify your tasks and lighten your load. Thankfully, science is doing its part to help you educate your students.



  1. Kayla

    November 4, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Great blog! I love all the brain-based learning techniques! Here’s another recent blog I loved on thinking and feeling: What Are We Really Doing When We Think? – that supports what you’re saying about SEL!

  2. roxannebennett

    November 22, 2014 at 10:11 am

    This really makes sense especially for middle school students who have a very short attention span. I usually set a timer for 10 minutes of work but 4-8 minutes is the best amount of time for complex items. If everything was put to music for middle schoolers they probably would bo better in school. Even in a 45 minute class period my students still need a short break or they take one on their own.

  3. Nancy

    November 22, 2014 at 10:44 am

    My students need brain breaks for sure. I can see the frustration in their faces when I have pushed the envelope for their intake ability.