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Brain-Friendly Teaching:
Strategies to Improve Memory


Did you know that current research indicates that students' brains are changing? Have you heard that the brain works best when the temperature is between 68 and 72 degrees? "BrainLady" Marilee Sprenger, talks about the latest research. Included: Teaching strategies that engage the brain.

"Teachers who are new to brain-compatible teaching are often in awe of how the brain remembers, and of how many different memory systems there are," explains BrainLady Marilee Sprenger. "Although many brain-compatible principles are followed instinctively, once teachers know why and how the principles work, they are much more likely to use those principles again."

Sprenger provides staff development that translates and applies current educational neuroscience and memory research to benefit schools. In meeting with teachers around the world, she notes that they are most surprised by the depth of research available, and by the fact that most school districts are not taking advantage of the research.

Brain-Friendly Teaching:
The Series

Be sure to see all three articles in this fascinating series on brain-friendly teaching.

* Brain-Friendly Teaching: Strategies to Improve Memory
* Brain-Friendly Teaching: From Sensory to Long-Term Memory
* Brain-Friendly Teaching: Putting Brain-Friendly Strategies to Work

"Educators want to know how to get the information out to school boards, administrators, and parents," Sprenger says. "The most effective way I know of, is to use the applications of the research and model them for others. Talking to administrators and requesting professional development in those areas is another path teachers might take. Showing others how successful the strategies are is what makes the difference. Walk the walk, and soon others will follow."

Sprenger finds that teachers are always concerned about attention and motivation. They need and want to know about the latest research into the brain and its functions. For example, Sprenger cites current research on the reticular activating system (RAS), the brain's first filtering system, which suggests that students' brains have changed. According to Sprenger, students have been overexposed to emotionally-laden messages that bombard them on a regular basis. From computers to videos, MTV, and other technology, fast-paced messages have become the norm.

"That overexposure has changed the reticular activating system, the brain's first filter," Sprenger observes. "The RAS is located in the survival area of the brain, and it scans the outside world for danger. From our experiences and our lifestyles, it determines which information is allowed to enter the brain. As the brain is programmed to forget, it filters out about 99 percent of incoming information. This usually allows us to focus and keep our sanity."

Students, however, have lived in a world of constant messaging, so their brains have changed more quickly than those of their teachers. Because of its extensive use, the reticular activating system scans more quickly and expects more information. As teachers instruct, the engagement of the students might be brief as new stimuli are discovered by the RAS.

What can teachers do about that? "Most experts agree that there are specific strategies that might help engage our students' attention," advises Sprenger. "Use students' names as often as possible. Because hearing one's name is useful for survival, the RAS will focus on it. Use color to appeal to the brain. The brain likes and reacts to color. Use colored paper, chalk, markers, and so on."

"Novelty is key," Sprenger suggests. "Anything that is novel must be attended to by the survival area of the brain. Use emotion to activate the RAS, and information will be sent to memory centers. The brain can store only information that it attends to. That applies to all grade levels, as even our youngest students are exposed to a multitude of messages."


Recent research also suggests that improving students' working memories will help increase IQ and other cognitive abilities. While Sprenger doesn't promote rote memorization, she does note that much of the work being done with working memory involves simple rehearsals, or "training" working memory.

"That can be done by showing students simple problems, removing the problems from their vision, and then asking them to figure out the solution," explains Sprenger. "Asking students to memorize short selections, like poems, helps them work on strategies to store and retrieve information."

Other simple strategies recommended by Sprenger to improve students' memory include:

This is one of the all-time favorite brain activities, says Sprenger. Stories have emotional components that attract the amygdale, the emotional center of the brain. They also have beginnings, middles, and ends that make sense to the hippocampus, the structure that helps store these episodes.

While Sprenger urges care in using it, humor -- not necessarily joke-telling -- is not only attractive to the emotional system, it also allows for some higher level thinking higher up in the brain. Humor, laughter, and joyfulness release important brain chemicals that make us feel good and aid in retention. Some research suggests that we remember at least 30 percent more of what we learn with humor.

Games are another hit with student and adult brains. Learning through play is one of the most powerful ways to learn. Limiting competition is important, says Sprenger, but never limit the fun. Repetition aids in storing memory, and the fun will help the brain mark the connections for later memory encoding.

Comparing and contrasting are skills that make a difference in student achievement. Creating their own analogies or listening to the teacher's will assist students' brains in connecting new information to what it is being compared to. The hippocampus gets the opportunity to draw on previously stored patterns and compare the new to the old. Some of those analogy components might bring up personal memories that will provide another learning link.

"Is creating a brain-compatible classroom like preparing a special dish or a meal?" asks Sprenger. Memory is enhanced when students create metaphors connecting what they are learning to something they already know.

Kinesthetic students will feel as though they are part of the lesson if movement, hands-on learning, or manipulation of material is involved. That will appeal to their amygdale, since they like the movement; and to their hippocampus, as active, hands-on learning will bring back memories of prior movement and movement patterns.

Brain Lady

For the past 15 years, Marilee Sprenger has been engaged in raising student achievement using brain-based teaching strategies, differentiation, and memory research. She has written numerous articles and authored the following books:
* Learning and Memory: The Brain in Action
* Becoming a "Wiz" at Brain-based Teaching
* Differentiation through Learning Styles and Memory
* How to Teach So Students Remember
An international educational neuroscience consultant who refers to herself as the BrainLady, Sprenger has taught all levels from pre-K to graduate school. She is currently an adjunct professor at Aurora University where she teaches brain-compatible strategies and memory courses.