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Brain-Friendly Teaching:
Putting Brain-Friendly Strategies
To Work


Are you aware that a student's "focus time" is roughly equal to his age in minutes or that the most effective strategy for retention appears to be teaching others? Marilee Sprenger discusses how to put brain-friendly strategies to work. Included: Advice to help you avoid your own senior moments.

"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."

Often, discarding techniques that don't work is as important to improving teaching and retention as adopting those that do work. Neuroscience expert and BrainLady Marilee Sprenger tells Education World that if teachers keep in mind that students have a limited focus time, they can chunk their lessons into purposeful time slots.

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

"Focus time is generally said to be the students' age in minutes. For example, rather than teaching twelve year olds by lecturing for twenty minutes, lecture for ten or fewer minutes and then have students discuss the material with one another in a think-pair-share arrangement," suggests Sprenger. "Lecture is effective, but we must give up the lengthy speeches with too many points covered. Retention is low unless students are using graphic organizers or guiding questions to take notes. The time limits still must be adhered to."

Similarly, assigning whole chapters to read without specific guidance as to what to look for also will result in low memory. The more actively students are involved in their learning, the more likely they are to remember it. Sprenger reports that the most effective strategy for retention appears to be teaching others.

"Rote rehearsal needs to be replaced with elaborative rehearsal," she advises. "Instead of memorizing lists, students can use some of the mnemonic devices, such as Peg Systems, to help them visualize and remember."


In practical terms, brain-friendly learning works at different levels through varying strategies. With the goal of having students truly master and remember the material, an elementary grade teacher might tackle the common assignment of a weekly spelling list through mnemonic devices (memory strategies), which are brain-compatible ways of storing information.

"Some of those involve thoughts and many include actions as well," Sprenger shares. "Singing spelling words has been effective for many students, and tunes such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat often are used."

Pairing students with one as the "writer" and another as the "paper" is a different technique that improves memory. The first student writes the spelling word on the back of his partner by using his finger as the writing utensil. The "paper" partner must visualize the word in order to pronounce it. For kinesthetic learners, Sprenger suggests an alternate activity that makes us of a "hopscotch" board with enough letters for students to hop to each letter of the spelling word.

Rhyming to Remember

One of Marilee Sprenger's favorite peg systems is the rhyming peg: one is the sun; two is a shoe; three is a tree; four is a door; five is a hive; six is a bunch of sticks; seven is heaven; eight is a gate; nine is a line; and ten is a hen. She explains that once students have memorized this peg, they can take items they wish to remember and associate them with the different nouns.
If U.S. presidents need to be remembered, for example, a student might associate them in the following way. One is the sun: George Washington is lying out in the sun with his wig off and it blows away! (Sprenger says that the more outrageous the connection, the better it will be remembered.) Two is a shoe: John Adams is speaking in front of Congress without his shoes on. Three is a tree: Thomas Jefferson is hiding in the cherry tree that Washington is about to chop down! Students come up with their own personal pictures and that makes them more memorable, and peg systems can go up to twenty or more.

"My favorite strategy for teaching literary terms for older students is to use a mind map," says Sprenger. "This is a web of sorts. In the center of a piece of paper, the student writes Literary Terms and puts a cloud around it. This is all done in one color. Then, using another colored marker or colored pencil, a line is drawn and the literary term such as simile is written on the line. Below the line, the student creates a picture or icon representing the definition. Perhaps she draws two stick figures, puts an arrow between the two, and writes like or as above the arrow. My students loved making the maps and got very creative with their pictures. Visualization is an important component of memory and students visualized their maps and pictures to access their terms and definitions."


Knowing what she does about the brain, how it learns, and how it functions, Sprenger recognizes that every person can take better care of his or her brain to improve memory. That includes getting enough sleep, which means eight hours for adults. Eating right and including Omega 3 fats in the diet help too, as does lowering stress through exercise, meditation, or making life changes.

"Write things down," advises Sprenger. "Often we forget because we are using our memory spaces with information that we can take off of our minds by jotting it down. That frees working memory space and makes it easier to remember what we have completed, where we have put things, and what we need to remember or do next."

What other things can teachers do to stay on top of their own memory challenges and avoid the stereotypical senior moments," especially in the classroom? Simply spending time with interesting people keeps the mind young. Reading the newspaper, discussing what is going on in the world, and social contact are all positive experiences for the brain.

"It is vital as we age that we keep our brains challenged and busy," Sprenger states. "Playing bridge, chess, and other intellectual games is helpful. Learning new skills such as playing musical instruments is a wonderful way to challenge your brain and keep it making connections. Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and reading also are helpful."

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.