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MS in Higher Education Course Insight: 10 Brain-Based Strategies for College Teaching

Walden University’s master’s in higher education students gain valuable tools for teaching excellence.

Educators must think beyond the lecture if they want to engage students in learning and boost retention and success.

That’s the message from Greta C. Freeman and Pamela D. Wash in “You Can Lead Students to the Classroom, and You Can Make Them Think: Ten Brain-Based Strategies for College Teaching and Learning Success.” The article is required reading in Bridging Learning Theory, Instruction, and Technology, a master’s-level course for education professionals pursuing higher education degrees at Walden University.

MS in Higher Education Course Insight: 10 Brain-Based Strategies for College Teaching

“In a higher education perfect world, students would enjoy going to and participating in class, remember the material communicated, reflect on that information, and apply it in real-world situations,” the authors write. “That this is often not the case may largely be due to the continued use of 19th-century teaching methods with our 21st-century students. Many college and university instructors continue to use lecture as their preferred pedagogical teaching strategy. Unfortunately, according to Sousa (2006), only about 5% of a lecture is generally retained by students even one day after delivery.”

In seeking to put forward strategies for success, the authors reviewed brain research, brain-based teaching reports, their own classroom experiences, and data from student opinion polls. “We maintain that by implementing a variety of instructional strategies based on brain research, it is possible to compel students to think. Students can be taught using engaging pedagogical strategies in ways that help them remember the information, all while enjoying the learning process.”

In this excerpt from their article, Freeman and Wash share their 10 brain-based teaching strategies for college instructors:1

A Safe Environment
One of the characteristics of a brain-compatible learning environment is low stress (Caine, Caine, McClintic, & Klimek, 2009; Jensen, 2010; Radin, 2009; Shore, 2012; Sylwester, 1994; Wilmes, Harrington, Kohler-Evans, & Sumpter, 2008). Students should feel safe and unafraid. It is easy to understand this when thinking about a P-12 classroom. It is far less evident that an adult student could be afraid or feel unsafe in a classroom on a university campus. Fear and stress occur when a professor degrades, belittles, teases, uses sarcasm, refuses to be available through office time or e-mail, and/or fails to offer support to those students who are struggling or in need of additional instruction. Instructors should have strict guidelines for classroom respect and civility; rude, disrespectful behavior from fellow students or instructors is unacceptable and can harm students’ self-esteem and academic progress. With recent reports suggesting that “30–50% of all students feel moderately or greatly stressed every day,” and “chronic or acute stress is very bad for behavior and learning” (Jensen, 2010, p. 5), creating an environment that is both enjoyable and stress-free only makes sense for student success and retention.

Multiple Intelligences
Connell (2009) states that “the theory of multiple intelligences,” developed in 1983 by Howard Gardner, Harvard education professor, “provides a framework that teachers can use to create lessons that will reach all learners.” (p. 36) Gardner identified eight multiple intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. It is believed by many that if instructors use various pedagogical strategies based on a range of intelligences, students will have a better opportunity to comprehend and retain the information. Instructors can differentiate for instruction by designing activities based on the eight multiple intelligences (Andronache, Bocos, Stanciu, & Raluca, 2011; Connell, 2009) to help ensure the needs of all learners are met.

Cooperative Grouping
Cooperative learning is a teaching strategy easily integrated into college classrooms and is “crucial to a successful brain-based classroom.” (Wilmes et al., 2008, p. 661) Jensen (2011) believes students with good social skills will do well academically, and he encourages instructors to use social situations supported by cooperative learning programs. Willis (2007) believes that to qualify as cooperative group work, students must depend on one another to complete the task, tasks should be clear and easily achieved, the instructor must be available as a guide or mediator, but students should not need constant assistance; and students ultimately are responsible for working together and accomplishing their goal. Students benefit from working together on projects and presentations inside and outside of regular face-to-face class meetings and online coursework. Adopting Willis’s (2007) use of cooperative grouping, whereby the instructor moves away from the traditional teacher-centered styles of teaching and allowed students to be more involved in their own learning, will give students a sense of freedom and appreciation of the trust shown by their instructor.

Movement and Chunking of Content
Radin (2009) and Jensen (2008) say that movement is a characteristic of brain-compatible instruction. Whether it be the instructor traveling around the room as he or she lectures or facilitates class discussion, or the students repositioning themselves periodically (to form or work in groups, to role-play, to take a short break), movement allows the brain to make better connections. Jensen (2010) reports that the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory forming, has limits on how much information it can hold. In other words, students subjected to continuous lecture for longer than 15-minute chunks may not be processing the information effectively. Taking short breaks where students are allowed to move about, using purposeful transitions, or changing activities every few minutes allows for students to be more attentive and remember what they learn.

Professors who are able to laugh at themselves may generate a feeling of approachability by their students. Having a good laugh is good for overall health, and, as stated by Kher, Molstad, and Donahue (1999), “Humor is a valuable teaching tool for establishing a classroom climate conducive to learning.” (p. 400) The key for humor to be beneficial is that it must be relevant and astutely managed. Shore (2012) shares insights related to both Roland Barth’s educational thought and the brain-based learning research of today. As she states, “Laughing provides more oxygen to the brain, causes endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers, to surge, and decreases stress levels and blood pressure.” (p. 130)

The Arts
The arts can be used as a brain-based attention enhancer as well as a strategic way to teach a topic. Jensen (2010) reports recent research results demonstrating that “certain arts boost attention, working memory, and visual-spatial skills.” (p. 9) Music can be used as an attention grabber, “creating a short burst of energizing excitement.” (Wilmes et al., 2008, p. 664) A former colleague of one of the authors began almost every class meeting with a riff from a different 1970s or 1980s rock band. His strategy was, first, to get their attention, and second, to get them thinking using different genres of music. YouTube videos and songs can be used to aid students’ understanding. Music can also be used as a calming agent or for “providing a multi-sensory learning experience that enhances memory.” (Wilmes et al., 2008, p. 664) It can be helpful to play soft music while students work independently, in groups, or in test-taking situations. Music helps with memory and recall (Ho, Cheung, & Chan, 2003; Wessel, 1998). Having students put facts or researched information about a topic to music is not only a way to integrate the arts, but allows for movement, cooperative learning, and experiential learning.

Active/Experiential Learning
According to Kahveci and Ay (2008), constructivist learning is when “students are in the center of the teaching and learning process.” (p.125) Experiential learning is “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” (Kolb, 1984, p. 41) Experiential education is “the change in an individual that results from reflection on a direct experience and results in new abstractions and applications.” (Roberts, 2002, p. 92) Roberts (2002) stresses the importance of experiential learning for academic success. He goes on to say the brain-compatible approach is one attempt to “broaden and deepen experiential pedagogy.” (p. 281) One of Radin’s (2009) characteristics of brain-compatible instruction is “experiences in the classroom, including trial and error, exploration, practice, creativity and critical thinking.” (p. 43) Stated another way, “Knowledge is based in activity.” (Fischer, 2009, p. 5)

Relevant/Real Course Assignments
Making course content “relevant” is, in Roberts’s (2002) words, “relating information to students’ previous experience and learning.” (p. 282) For example, “Simulations and role-plays mimic our natural environment and encourage complex processing.” (p. 283) One college science professor we know of has taught the digestive system through a dance. After performing the dance, complete with digestion related costumes, there was no way students could ever forget the process of digestion. When Shore’s (2012) students had trouble remembering brain-related vocabulary, one of her students “brought in a dozen white Styrofoam hat and wig stands that they had purchased at a local beauty supply.” Groups of students, using colorful markers, drew “diagrams of the relevant brain parts on the Styrofoam head and name(d) them with a partner.” (p. 133) Rather than simply giving students a vocabulary list to memorize, this activity made the brain parts become real to them.

Critical Thinking and Reflection
Brain-based classrooms “are characterized by ongoing questioning and analysis.” (Pool, 1997, p. 14) Critical thinking in the classroom must be purposeful. Instructors should strategically plan for experiences with the content at various levels of thinking. Bloom’s taxonomy (1956) is a staple for guiding levels of thinking in classrooms; however, an essential component of true understanding and learning is reflection. To capitalize on this concept, Pappas (2010) developed his “Taxonomy of Reflection” based on the original Bloom’s taxonomy as well as the revised Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson et al., 2001). Pappas’s model suggests that students be provided reflective questions from the various levels of the taxonomy at the completion of a project or key assignment. In turn, the instructor should reflect on each lesson, asking the same six key questions Pappas proposes: (1) Remembering: What did I do? (2) Understanding: What was important about it? (3) Applying: Where could I use this again? (4) Analyzing: Do I see any patterns in what I did? (5) Evaluating: How well did I do? And (6) Creating: What should I do next?

Technology Integration
“Brain-based learning is wonderfully compatible with technology,” according to Pool (1997, p. 10). The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010) reports that young people have increased their daily use of technology and media from 6.5 hours a day to slightly over 7.5 hours a day in the past five years. This increase is attributed to the explosion of mobile and online media accessible to youth ages eight to 18 years. Knowing this generation of students is or soon will be filling our classrooms, it is essential that teachers at all levels tap into this medium to motivate learners.

Where Can an MS in Higher Education Take You?

With a master’s degree, you can gain the skills and knowledge to develop and lead higher-education-level programs, services, and classes. Individuals with higher education degrees choose from a diverse array of career choices: academic advising, academic affairs, corporate training, distance learning, faculty development, marketing, military education, student affairs, and finance, to name just a few. The career planning and development team at your accredited university can help provide you with information and ideas.

The best higher education master’s programs offer specializations that let you tailor your studies to your career goals. In addition to a General Program, Walden University offers six specializations including College Teaching and Learning, Leadership for Student Success, and Online and Distance Learning.

Walden’s online master’s program in higher education also offers two completion options. Students on the traditional track take one course at a time, allowing them to earn a degree while remaining fully immersed in personal and professional activities. The fast track is for students who have more time to devote to their higher education degree and can take two courses concurrently.

With so many options and so much flexibility, it’s a great time to explore your career potential with a master’s in higher education.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online MS in Higher Education degree program with six specializations. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

1Source: Walden curriculum

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,