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Brain Science Applying Neuroplasticity Principles To Higher Education


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Ideas on how to apply lessons from brain related science to learning.

Published in: Health & Medicine, Technology

Brain Science Applying Neuroplasticity Principles To Higher Education

  1. 1. Applying Neuroplasticity Principles to Higher Education (Revised April 19, 2009) S. Mark Barnes and Janae Adamson
  2. 2. Neuroplasticity The ability of the brain to  reorganize itself and create new circuits in response to our environment and most remarkably in response to our thoughts. Life-long Plasticity In recent decades  scientists have discovered that the brain is plastic throughout our lives. New Neuron Growth Recent research has  shown that stem cells in the brain can grow new neurons at any age.
  3. 3. Attention/Focus  Intensity  Duration  Constraint/Immersion  Imitation  Visualization 
  4. 4. Focus of Attention The tool which creates change  in the structure and organization of the brain is mental focus. We select where we focus our attention. Stimulation Having focused our attention, our  brain can be stimulated in specific areas. Neurons that fire together wire together, creating and strengthening circuits in the brain. Simultaneity When two things happen together,  they become linked in our minds. For example, reading the word “airplane” and seeing the image of an airplane.
  5. 5. Intense Experiences Intense experiences are  required for significant reorganization of the brain. The intensity of the stimulation will dictate how neuro development occurs. Nurturing Stimulation Nurturing levels are  most effective for positive effects. Examples of Intense Neuroplastic Experiences  ◦ Learning a Foreign Language Overseas ◦ First Year of Law School ◦ Marine Basic Training
  6. 6. Short-term Neuroplasticity happens rapidly.  ◦ Rapid expansion of brain maps. ◦ Memorizing the names of people at a meeting. ◦ Cramming for a test. Long-term Several months are required for  permanent effects. ◦ Effects become permanent. ◦ Brain maps contract in size, but the neurons involved become very efficient.
  7. 7. Reorganization of the Brain is facilitated when a  person is constrained from using the strong circuits in their brain and must resort to using the weaker circuits. Brain Injury Victims can often recover significant  abilities by preventing the use of the good arm or leg and using sustained effort to complete tasks with the bad limb. Brail Readers see with their fingers as the  constraint caused sight loss causes the brain to reassign the visual cortex to sensing brail through the fingers.
  8. 8. Immersion = Constraint Immersion can  provide the constraint needed for neuroplasticity. Foreign Language learners living in a foreign  country are constrained by the inability of others to understand their native tongue. Law School Students and Soldiers experience  significant constraint by being immersed in a particular environment. (First year of law school and basic training)
  9. 9. Mirror Neurons cause the same parts of an  observer‟s brain to activate when watching another person engage in an activity. Watching a person dance activates the areas of  an observer‟s mind used in dancing. Our Frontal Lobes inhibit our actually engaging in  the activity. Imitation by Children is less  restrained, since their frontal lobes are less developed. This allows children to learn more through imitation.
  10. 10. Visualizing an activity activates the same  areas of the brain that are engaged when actually doing the activity. Skills can Improve and strengthen solely  through visualization. Athletes and Musicians routinely  visualize their activities before performing.
  11. 11. 苦労 (kurou) is the Japanese word for struggle.  The two characters are “hardship” and “labor.”  The Japanese are world leaders in  mathematics education. In part, this is because the Japanese  intuitively understand the neuroplastic effect of 苦労 (kurou). Students must struggle with an idea in order  to create and strengthen circuits in the brain. No pain – No neuroplastic gain. 
  12. 12. High level thinking requires sophisticated  mental tools. Students without the proper mental tools  become frustrated, because even their best efforts cannot compete. It is like a poor farmer with his ox and plow  trying to compete with a modern tractor.
  13. 13. Neuroplasticity is the Mental Tool Factory.  Students who are missing important tools can  be helped with neuroplastic techniques designed to build and strengthen critical neuro-circuits. Students with strong underlying  fundamental structures can learn to use neuroplastic principles to create the mental tools they need to succeed.
  14. 14. Grade Calculator: Rather than using a calculator  or spreadsheet to make basic point calculations, a teacher may practice grade calculations in her mind until she can rapidly and accurately make the calculations in her mind. Objections: Because a lawyer must object to a  question immediately in Court, a good litigator will create a mental tool which will instantly identify a situation calling for an objection. The lawyer will be on his feet before he has fully formed the objection in his mind.
  15. 15. Eric Jensen, in his book entitled Enriching the  Brain, How to Maximize Every Learner‟s Potential, explains how to use the concept of Neuroplasticity to more effectively learn new skills.
  16. 16. “Attentional mindset to the task: It is  essential to pay fixed attention. The more the student‟s mind wanders, the less the rate of change. Even software programs and videogame programs require the subject to stay „locked in‟ to the content and the process.” (Jensen, 2006, p. 82)
  17. 17. “Low to moderate stress: This variable is  quite slippery because what is stressful for one may not be stressful for another. The bottom line is that the subject must perceive some choice or control over the task and the surrounding conditions. Otherwise, the stress from that loss of control may neutralize the positive effects from the learning.” (Jensen, 2006, p. 82)
  18. 18. Learning happens when we are in our  “learning zone.” In the book Talent is Overrated: What Really  Separates World-Class Performers from Everyone Else, Geoff Colvin divides potential learning situations into three zones. 1. The Comfort Zone 2. The Learning Zone 3. The Panic Zone
  19. 19. Comfort Zone: In this zone we do things that  we already know how to do. Our brain is already the master of this zone. There is no need for change. Panic Zone: In this zone we know we are far  beyond of abilities. Panic overwhelms any learning. Learning Zone: In this zone we are pushing  beyond our current abilities. We feel some stress, but we are not overwhelmed. For learning this zone is “just right.”
  20. 20. “Coherent, meaningful task: The evidence  suggests that random, useless tasks will create little or no change in the brain. It only gets the subjects irritated or bored. They have to buy into the task.” (Jensen, 2006, p. 82)
  21. 21. “Massed Practice: The ideal is sixty to ninety  minutes a day, three to five times a week. Very young subjects may be unable to focus for more than twenty to forty minutes, but teens or adults are better at focusing for longer periods. This length of practice is critical or the brain won‟t change much.” (Jensen, 2006, pp. 82-83)
  22. 22. “Learner –controlled feedback: Most tasks will  involve learners who will make mistakes. If the feedback is too general, too fast, or too irritating, the learner will become distressed and success will drop. Ideally, subjects should be able to adjust the level and type of task feedback, though with great care it can be designed to be appropriate for each subject.” (Jensen, 2006, p. 83)
  23. 23. “Repetition of task: The brain will create new  connections when there‟s new learning, but these connections must be reinforced and strengthened or they deteriorate. The repetition should be daily, or at least many times per week.” (Jensen, 2006. p. 83)
  24. 24. “Overnight rest between new learning  sessions: Although new connections and corrections are formed during the daytime, it is the nighttime when the learning is consolidated, organized, and distributed to various areas of the brain for long-term storage. Sleep is a critical ingredient for transfer from short-term to long-term memory.” (Jensen, 2006, p. 83)
  25. 25. Brain Rules is an amazing book written by  John Medina.
  26. 26. John Medina is the director of the Brain  Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.
  27. 27. The Book‟s website can be found at:  John Medina has also created great video to  accompany the book. It is very entertaining. Buy this book: If you are interested in brain  based learning ideas, this is the first book I would buy.
  28. 28. The following are John Medina‟s Twelve Brain  Rules. 1. Exercise: Exercise boots brain power.  2. Survival: The human brain evolve, too.  3. Wiring: Every brain is wired differently.  4. Attention: We don‟t pay attention to boring  things. 5. Short-term Memory: Repeat to remember.  6. Long-term Memory: Remember to repeat. 
  29. 29. 7. Sleep: Sleep well, think well.  8. Stress: Stressed brains don‟t learn the  same way. 9. Sensory Integration: Stimulate more of the  senses. 10. Vision: Vision trumps all other senses.  11. Gender: Male and female brains are  different. 12. Exploration: We are powerful and natural  explorers.
  30. 30. Students can create their own learning tools  to create neuroplastic effects. Some possible suggestions:  Comprehensive Outlines ◦ Create Flash Cards ◦ Audio Recordings – MP3 Players ◦ Practice Sessions ◦ Visualization Sessions ◦ Create Self-Restraining Situations ◦ Deliberate Discussions ◦ PowerPoint Presentations ◦
  31. 31. This is a traditional Law School technique.  Students spend hours and hours creating  outlines in which they attempt to place cases and concepts in a meaningful order, which will help them succeed on the final exam. This process forces the student to focus and  create meaning out of the class materials. This process also forces the student to run the  cases and concepts through her mind over and over again. This process is the reason that many lawyers can  still discuss many of the cases twenty or thirty years later.
  32. 32. Flash cards are a traditional and effective  method of study. Much of the benefit comes from the act of  creating the flash cards. The student focuses on the process and is  forced to boil down information and concepts to the most important parts. Flash cards also allow repetition.  The Flash Card Machine: 
  33. 33. A student can use an MP3 Player in many  ways. Record and listen to a class multiple times.  Listen to podcasts and audio books on  relevant topics. Create an audio outline and listen to it  multiple times.
  34. 34. If the class involves the learning of a  particular skill, the student can design ways in which to deliberately practice the skill. Divide the skill into its important parts and  focus on specific parts. Example: Tiger Woods practicing hitting balls  out of sand traps hundreds or times in a session. Example: A finance student calculating a  particular ratio for several different companies by using the companies 10-Ks.
  35. 35. When we visualize we engage the parts of our  brains used in the actual activity. Before throwing a bowling ball, visualize your  movements, release and the path of the ball. Before giving a class presentation, visualize  giving the presentation several times. Analyze how you did in your mind.  Try out different approaches.  Be self-critical.  Correct mistakes before you actually give the  presentation.
  36. 36. Force yourself to do things the hard way.  You cannot learn a language if you have a  translator. My daughter calls me and speaks in Japanese.  She is restraining herself to create neuroplastic change. A finance student calculates financial ratios  by hand, rather than using software. He learns the meaning of the ratio at a deeper level.
  37. 37. Discussing a topic forces concentration,  organization, provides immediate feedback and provides repetition. We have all had intense discussions that we  remember for years. Look for chances to discuss ideas with others.  If you do not have someone close who can  discuss the topic, look for online discussions.
  38. 38. As with creating Flash Cards or Outlines,  creating a PowerPoint presentation (like this one) can help the student create the opportunity for a neuroplastic response.
  39. 39. Is it nature or nurture?  Answer: In large part it is neuroplasticity.  In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell looks at  why some people achieve such great success. Success comes from 1) Hard Work, and  2) Opportunity. Extremely successful people became successful  after running into very specific opportunities for which they were uniquely prepared. Bill Gates was one of the few people in the world  who had virtually unlimited access to a computer for years before the PC revolution.
  40. 40. To be world-class at nearly anything requires  10,000 hours of intense work in an area. This applies to musicians, athletes, scholars  or anyone who performs at a very high level. Long-term neuroplastic effects require  intense hard work and repetition sustained over a long period of time. If you want to be a very successful business  person, pick you area of expertise and begin working on your 10,000 hours, now!
  41. 41. Begley, Sharon (2007). Train Your Mind,  Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves . New York, NY: Ballantine Books. Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne and Firth, Uta (2005).  The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. Blakeslee, Sandra (2007). The Body Has a  Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better. New York, NY: Random House.
  42. 42. Colvin, Geoffrey (2008). Talent Is Overrated:  What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. New York, NY: Penguin Group. Doidge, Norman (2007). The Brain That  Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York, NY: Penguin Group. Gladwell, Malcolm (2008). Outliers: The Story  of Success. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
  43. 43. Halpern, Sue (2008). Can't Remember What I  Forgot: The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research. Scotland, UK: Harmony. Heath, John F. (2006). When Bright Kids Can't  Learn, How New Brain Research Can Help Your Child. Salt Lake City, UT: IQ Express. Jensen, Eric (2006). Enriching the Brain, San  Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
  44. 44. Medina, John (2008). Brain Rules: 12  Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press. Santa Fe Productions (2007). The Brain  Fitness Program DVD . PBS Home Video. Schwartz, Jeffrey M. (2003). The Mind and the  Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force . New York, NY: Harper Perennial.