Dr. John Medina on How to Use Your Brain

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For most educators, brain research is not a normal topic of discussion. In turn, the majority of brain researchers do not typically apply their knowledge to the education system. Yet, these two fields are transforming as a result of many of the same factors like new technology tools and the changes in human learning styles which they cause. Dr. John Medina is one brain researcher who has taken the initiative to apply his brain rules to the work of educators seeking to maximize the cognitive productivity of those in their charge. Given the constantly emerging technology tools, students of all levels may see some great benefits when teachers combine Medina’s insights with widely available educational technology tools.

A developmental molecular biologist by trade, Dr. John J. Medina has focused his research on the genes involved in human brain developmental and the genetics of psychiatric disorders. In 2008, this guru of grey matter published the New York Times Best-Selling book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School in which he outlines 12 brain rules that can be applied to improve everyday real life. If you are a faculty member interested in how to increase student learning, read on for some ideas of how three of Medina’s brain rules might apply to the ways you use technology in your classroom.

Rule 3: Every brain is wired differently.

03 Wiring from Pear Press on Vimeo.

Each student in any given class has a physically unique brain that has been wired based on individual life experiences and differing rates of biological development. To get an idea of what your students already know, what they don’t know, and what their learning preferences are, it is a good idea to use informal polls and surveys early and often in your course. You may find that your instruction and assignments will be more effective if you tweak them based on your audience.

To get started, you could find an online multiple intelligence survey like this one from literacyworks.org, use one of the many audience response systems, or develop your own surveys with Blackboard’s assessment tools. When writing survey items, think about the different ways that students engage with the course material. Are there interesting writing assignments, visual representations, opportunities for problem solving and critical thinking, physical activities, group projects, time for reflection, etc? Is there information or concepts that you take for granted as a subject matter expert, but that today’s students may not have ever learned?

Create several quick surveys specific to course units that may be used as temperature checks at intervals throughout the semester. These formative assessments will allow you to see if you are reaching the unique brains of your students and modify your instruction accordingly based on the results.

Rule 4: We don’t pay attention to boring things.

04 Attention from Pear Press on Vimeo.

Medina’s fourth rule needs little explanation especially to those faculty members who have the occasional sleepy student attending their lectures. If you suspect your students might be rigid adherents to rule four, Dr. Medina has some tips that may improve your instruction.

As a general rule, the average brain has an attention span of about ten minutes. To maintain students’ interest, do something engaging in your lectures every ten minutes or so. With many technology and multimedia resources available, the job of attention-seeking professors becomes a little bit easier. For most of our history, humans have learned best through narratives and emotional events. Try punctuating your lectures with multimedia like video clips or songs that tell stories or trigger emotional responses in your audience. Here are some good resources for embedding sound files and videos into PowerPoint presentations.

Another good teaching practice related to educational technology and brain rule four is to avoid asking your students to multitask during time devoted to academic work. So if you do show a movie or assign students a project in class, avoid the urge to address the class while their attention is engaged elsewhere. The cognitive drain resulting from the brain’s switch in focus will outweigh any positive impact of the information you are attempting to deliver. Instead, be patient and follow the brain rules; wait ten minutes to re-engage the class.

Rule 8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.

08 Stress from Pear Press on Vimeo.

No matter what age we are, we know that too much stress is a bad thing. Not only is stress a silent killer contributing to many long-term health problems, it is also a short term brain bandit robbing us of many cognitive abilities. Educators need to be especially aware of their students’ stress levels and manage academic expectations accordingly. Believe it or not, there is a negative psychological link between stress and technology known as technostress. Be careful about the amount of new technology that you introduce into your classroom. In today’s world, people already feel a constant, compulsive pressure to be connected, updated, and responsive to the rapid flow of information and technologies.  Make sure the software applications in your course are user-friendly and supported by the help desk. In addition, encourage the use of multiple communication technologies in your learning environment to provide quick feedback to students who may need help troubleshooting issues. Keep the student-student and faculty-student lines of communication open through tools like email, discussion boards, phone, chat, text, and social media. Experimenting and adapting to new technology is certainly not a bad thing and continues to be a necessary fact of modern life, but educators must be aware of how to manage technology use in their classrooms.

Another helpful technique related to stress management is to consider the flipped classroom model. Faculty members have little control over the amount of individual and emotional stress that students encounter outside of their academic lives; however, they can control what happens in the classroom. Therefore, it may be best to introduce new concepts and conduct hands-on practice with difficult material inside a stress-free classroom environment. Review or supplemental materials can be assigned to students outside of class where they won’t require the assistance of their professor or their classmates.

The three brain rules above are just a sampling of Medina’s work. Check out his interactive website or pick up one of the books to learn more about the application of brain research to every day pursuits like education. The instructional design team here at La Salle is always available and happy to help you incorporate technology into your teaching. We’ll provide the support and all you have to do is use your brain!