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Lilly Conference Keynote Reflection: Grey Matters when Teaching

Having just returned from the 2014 Lilly International Conference on College and University Teaching in Bethesda, I took a bit of time to reflect on some of the inspiring keynote addresses at this most recent conference and at those I attended in the past. Even though I’ve been learning about learning and teaching for more than 20 years, I continue to have “aha” moments where I learn something or get a new perspective on things I already know. This really struck me when I attended Jeannie Loeb’s 2013 keynote in Greensboro, NC. It was one of the most succinct and relevant summaries I have ever seen about how the research on brain functioning can directly influence (and support!) our strategies for teaching and learning.

Jeannie’s session reminded me that so many of our best practices work because the principles are actually grounded in what we know about how the brain works. Since the meeting, I have been reflecting about her four key points.

  • The brain is designed to be social.

  • The brain works best when happy.

  • The brain is engaged (and working) when actively processing information.

  • The brain strives to be efficient.

Following are a few things that struck me about each point – things that I have “known” and tried to do for many years, but with a reminder that these good practices are actually supported by what we know about how the brain is engaged when learning.

The brain is designed to be social.

Having a personal connection and building rapport with our students and demonstrating caring for them and their learning is not just “nice” to do, but will actually facilitate brain functioning, which sets the stage for improved cognition and student learning. Three tools help build rapport: disclosure, finding similarity, and showing caring. Jeanne noted the power of getting students involved, letting them get to know you, and getting them to better understand each other on the first day of class. This not only creates a positive learning environment, but sets the stage for the expectation of in-class (and out-of-class) discussions and participation.

The brain works best when happy.

When we are in a positive state, the brain is actually functioning physically in ways that support learning. We are more creative, better able to solve problems, and more likely to retain information. Establishing and promoting a strong rapport with our students puts us all in a positive state of mind which then contributes to cognitive functioning. Positivity can take many forms – joy, gratitude, interest, pride, inspiration, amusement, etc. It is beneficial to be constantly thinking of ways we can promote happiness and positivity in our classes. Do we know our students’ names? Are we enthusiastic and excited about the course content and about teaching the class? Are there ways to set up learning according to principles used in gaming (which makes many of our students happy)?

An engaged brain is more actively processing information.

Lectures and note-taking can only take learning to a certain level in terms of actively engaging learners’ brains. How can we engage students’ multisensory experiences? As an example, instead of telling students (lecturing) about taste receptors, Jeannie demonstrated a taste test that she uses in class so students can actually experience the location of taste receptors on their tongues. She also described an assignment where she had to create a skit to “act out” a statistical article – she thought it a bit unconventional, but she still remembers the article. How can we more deeply engage students’ brains through visual, auditory, or kinesthetic activities?

The brain strives to be more efficient.

Our brains are designed to be efficient and to not waste resources. (A really fun part of Jeannie’s session was watching the Whodunnit? video (shown below) where we experienced our own inability to notice the details until our attention is specifically drawn to it.) To take advantage of the natural design of our brains, we need to structure our learning exercises to draw in multisensory experiences. Again, don’t just tell them, but have them experience it through demonstrations. As Jeannie explained, novelty and surprise increase the brain’s attention by secreting chemicals which also set the stage for learning and memory to occur (for example, the secretion of dopamine and acetylcholine). We can call attention to important information simply with a change in movement or voice. The use of stories can also increase attention, learning, and memory.

Jeannie exemplified each of these points in her keynote to really make our own learning concrete. I know my brain was engaged and I was inspired!

To keep us learning about the brain and teaching, the following are some additional resources that you might find useful as you think about supporting student learning through what we know about how the brain works. Please share your good practices and helpful resources!

  • IDEA Paper No. 39: Establishing Rapport: Personal Interaction and Learning by Neil Fleming.

  • A short video of Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson discussing her book, Positivity (2009).

  • Storytelling Theory and Practice, a 45-minute presentation by Professor Brian Sturm, UNC Chapel Hill.

  • is a website based on the book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (2008) by John Medina.

  • Terry Doyle’s 2011 book, Learner Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning into Practice.

  • Dan Willingham’s 2010 book, Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means.

  • Terry Doyle & Todd Zakrajsek’s 2013 book, The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain.

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