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Approximately 86 billion brain cells are twitching inside your teenager’s skull, communicating via 150 trillion synapses. So, what’s the excuse? Why can’t high schoolers remember the Treaty of Versailles, conjugate Spanish verbs, or decipher the periodic table?
Why don’t their silly neurons learn better? What’s wrong?
The problem, say learning scientists, isn’t that teens are lazy or not bright. Instead, it may have far more to do with how they are being taught. Consider what the typical high school class looks like: Students sit passively in rows while they listen to teachers lecture in the front of the classroom. Then they go home to cram for a test. Once the test is done, they forget the majority of the material in a few days. Rinse and repeat. What’s the point if they’re not really learning what they’re being taught?
The science of learning, based on our understanding of neuroscience, argues that many traditional teaching strategies don’t take into account how a teen’s brain works. Recent discoveries about brain-based learning are proving not only to energize high school students, but to help teens absorb and retain information.
Teens zoning out during Euclidean geometry or citing TikTok influencers in an expository paper doesn’t always mean they are bored or lazy, argues neurologist and teacher Judy Willis, co-author of Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from Neuroscience and the Classroom. “The demands on students are squishing their natural curiosity and joy of learning,” Willis says.
Brain scientists suggest that students absorb information best if they work in what’s known as the flow state. This mindset is reached when their consciousness is fully “in the zone,” entirely focused on activities they find so pleasurable that time flies and all distractions disappear. Try these brain-based learning strategies and study skills that can help teens enter this open state of more productive and enjoyable learning.
1 Interrupt the lecture
Long lectures, an indigestible staple of high school academic diets, are one of the best examples, and worst offenders, of how old-school teaching methods don’t work for the teenage brain. What, exactly, is so wrong with uninterrupted lectures that have no pauses or participation, aside from a 10-minute Q & A right before the bell rings? A meta-analysis of 225 studies conducted at University of Washington discovered students in long-lecture classes were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in active-learning classes, and exam scores were 6 percent higher in the active-learning classes.
Long lectures impede student comprehension because after 10 minutes, the human brain’s ability to remember facts and concepts declines rapidly. Teens need a “brain break” when they’re overstimulated, says neuroscientist Willis. The stress, frustration, and boredom of listening to and trying to grasp a humongous amount of new information in a long lecture often shuts down the teen brain, blocking further absorption and learning.
Eric Jensen, author of Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching, advises teachers to strategically interrupt their lectures with what he calls “tools for engagement” to keep their students attentive and energized. To be effective, he says, engagement tools should be used every three minutes, employing — among dozens of techniques he recommends — everything from eye-opening demonstrations and props to call-and-response games and classmate interactions.
2 We won’t forget… what?
Memorizing is necessary for learning, but many old-school methods don’t work, according to learning scientists. Washington University research concluded that students rereading textbooks and notes is an ineffective memorization technique.
Far better strategies are using flashcards and self-quizzes, such as asking yourself potential essay questions or inventing math and science problems to solve. Scientists also advise students to use diagrams and flow charts to associate new information they’re learning with material they already understand. New and old knowledge should always be connected, Willis says, because familiarity increases recall. How does this happen? The brain’s recognition of even a single word activates and reheats memory patterns in the cerebral cortex, creating the “I remember this” feeling that reduces stress.
Willis believes in-class, no-stakes, non-graded practice tests also encourage memorization because successful test-taking gives students a “really good dopamine release, bathing the brain in deep satisfaction so they want to do it again.”
3 Practice makes brain-based learning
Repetition is often viewed as the most coma-inducing method for remembering information. Even so, learning the same material over and over and over (and over and over) again keeps the brain interested if done correctly. The trick, according to research, is to use novel memorization methods that make learning stick. “The brain’s hippocampus [which has a major role in learning and memory] gives priority to discovering and processing new information,” Willis explains. “And then, once you’ve heard it, you want to connect the new info to what is already known.”
Turn the material into a rhyme or song, have students create posters, or work on their own or with a partner to create fun memory devices. Rewards like prizes and positive call-outs are also wonderful ways to encourage students to put effort into rote memorization. The science? Like a video game, the rewards make their brains light up with a satisfying “bingo” dopamine hit.
4 Break it down and get active
Two additional successful memorization strategies are chunking and active learning. Chunking is, quite simply, a technique that breaks down large amounts of content into smaller categories, making each “chunk” easier to process and remember.
As the name implies, active learning is an instructional approach that actively engages the student in their education. A study of biochemistry students at UC Santa Barbara discovered that those who were enrolled in the active learning curriculum had consistent and statistically higher test scores. Examples of active learning include role-playing, group projects, peer teaching, debates, and student demonstrations followed by class discussion.
5 Our brains can grow like muscles
Growth mindset, first written about by Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, is the recognition that our brain’s ability to learn is not static, nor destined to be smart or not smart. Rather, a brain’s plasticity enables our cognitive powers to grow stronger the more we use them.
Teachers who emphasize growth mindset can help teens develop their intelligence, by building their understanding that learning will make them smarter. In Teaching with Poverty in Mind, author Eric Jensen describes how a growth mindset has been shown to be especially beneficial to students from impoverished families.
6 Use body brain boosters
Brain scientists know the body is closely linked to the brain. Playing music, exercising, eating well, and meditating all enhance the brain’s capabilities. “Bucketloads of recent research especially point to a stronger case for physical activity and sports,” Jensen says. “Our challenge, though, is that many teachers say they don’t have time for those.” Advice to parents? Encourage your high schooler to take part in those brain-boosting activities outside of the classroom, which will enhance their academic performance.
Sleep is another mind-boosting activity that is especially helpful. (But not recommended at school!) “Eight to 10 hours daily is good for adolescents,” says Willis, who stresses that more sleep is crucial for healthy cognitive function. “The early sleep cycles are superficial. It is the later sleep that’s most important. That’s when memory gets embedded.”
Teens often resist slumber, but parents can help by gently separating them from their electronic devices, tucking into bed earlier themselves, and rapping quasi-Ben Franklin: “Early to bed makes us bright when we rise. My teens will be healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
This article is part of GreatSchool’s Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.