Priming the Brain for Deeper Learning

A few weeks ago I posted the blog “Students Take Charge of Learning in the New Classroom” where I asked which way you would rather learn how to change a tire. I gave two options.

Option 1: You attend a lecture on how to change a tire and then have to change your first tire in a real-life scenario.

Option 2: You take a hands-on class where you learn about changing the tire by actually changing a tire. Then, you’re confronted with a real-life scenario.

The research cited said the most effective way to learn is option 2. When students learn by doing, opposed to listening about how to do something, their knowledge can be exercised and tested by showing mastery of a subject.

New research suggests that when it comes to motor movements there might be a third option. Neuroscience research shows that “when we watch someone else’s motions, the parts of the brain that direct our own physical movements are activated,” according to Annie Murphy Paul’s article “Couch Potatoes, Rejoice! Learning Can Be Passive.” When students watch an expert performing movements, the parts of the brain that direct their physical movements are activated.

One study of dancers showed this brain stimulation. Dancers spent five days doing two tasks: one was physically learning a routine and the other was watching a video of a dance they would never physically learn. When their brain activity was tested while watching a video of the routine they had physically rehearsed against the brain activity of watching the video routine they had never performed, researchers found similar brain patterns of activation.

However, before you start revising your lessons, in the article, Paul says there are a few studies that suggest there are more elements involved to get the same results as the dancers. One study showed that subjects who knew they were “expected to carry out the motions” were more apt to prime their brain for learning. The other study, again with dancers, showed that when dancers who were experienced in one style watched different styles of dance, they had a stronger activation when viewing the style they were trained in.

What does this mean for the classroom? You can maximize learning in your classroom by adding a few steps before your hands-on project. Start with having students do some background research on the upcoming project. Then, model how it is done. This will prime the pathways for deeper learning. Lastly, assign students to make a project that requires movement or the creation of something physical.



“Couch Potatoes, Rejoice! Learning Can Be Passive,” by Annie Murphy Paul. 29 February 2012. Time. Accessed on 2 March 2012.

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