Making Classes More Brain-Friendly: A DIY Student Guide

Making Classes More Brain-Friendly: A DIY Student Guide

By: Marc Helgesen

(Editor’s note: Marc did not say so here, but these great ideas were connected to an even greater one on conferencing. Starting at our Kyoto FAB Conference in 2015, Marc made a presentation on this topic exclusively for our volunteer student helpers! What a brilliant conference innovation, bringing the student volunteers into the learning as well!)

You’ve experienced this (or, if not you, your students certainly have). The teacher standing on the platform at the front of the room, barely looking up from their notes, droning on. The students, mostly sitting at the back of the room, are struggling to keep their eyes open. Many have given up the struggle. Will the droning ever stop?

You are glad this isn’t your class.

Actually, it may not be the teacher’s fault. The teacher is an expert in their discipline. They know more about it than you ever will. But you are a language teacher. If you trained as a teacher, you were taught about the skill of teaching. And you are reading this Think Tank, which means you are interested in teaching in a brain-friendly way. But what about our students? Most of their teachers haven’t learned about—or even heard of—Mind, Brain, and Education science. How can students make (better) use of those brain-unfriendly classes—even if the teacher isn’t thinking about that.

The following are nine ways students can (try to) modify those classes by reframing the input. They won’t all work in every class, but just knowing about them will give learners some strategies. It will also help them know a bit more about the brain and about how they learn. Give the students the following information sheet:

(**Webmaster’s note: There was no easy way to directly translate this lovely handout into web form. For best formatting, please read the original version in the PDF of the issue!)

Tools for Improving Your Learning

  • Go for emotion. Your brain loves emotion—which stimulates dopamine. That’s connected to memory and motivation (Medina, 2014). But how can you go for emotion in class? Look for topics you care about. Go for the most interesting topics, not the easiest tasks.

– Take notes on a mind map. Illustrate them—funny or unusual pictures are best. The brain likes novelty (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2021).

– On your notes, what is interesting? Mark it J. What isn’t? K or L. What’s important? !!!! So-so: ~ No: X

– You probably know that repetition helps you remember things. Did you know emotions can help you remember those things even better and faster? (Hampton, 2017).

The human brain cannot multi-task on cognitive (thinking) items. You can do physical and mental things at the same time but not two cognitive tasks simultaneously. 

When you try to multi-task, you are really doing a linear series of single tasks (Medina, 2014). It takes your brain time to get started each time. You make twice as many mistakes. When you are studying, turn off your phone and your computer—unless you are using them to study. Background music is OK if it relaxes you. Instrumental is better than vocal, because you don’t want to be paying attention to the words. By the way, “no multi-tasking” doesn’t mean no distractions or breaks. Your brain needs a break from time to time.

Remember to repeat. (Medina, 2014) During a lecture (when the teacher is talking), silently repeat key phrases and new ideas (“silent shadowing”). You want to really notice those.

Spaced repetition. (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014), Review and repeat information after class, the next day, etc.

You want to move information from “working (short-term) memory” to “long-term memory.” You do that by “revisiting” the information several times. After class. After school. Maybe on the train/bus on the way home. Tomorrow morning, see if you can remember the key points from yesterday.

Move. Your body evolved to walk 10-20 km per day. Almost nobody does that now. But get into a routine of exercising.

In class, move when you can. If the teacher says, “Pairwork. Find a partner,” stand up and find someone on the other side of the room to work with. Moving for one minute sends a 15% increase of blood (and therefore oxygen) to your brain (Sousa, 2016). In a class where you can’t move around, maybe you can do stretching exercises like they recommend doing on airplanes. Here’s a simple idea: Learning is social. Take a 20-minute walk with a friend during lunch. Tell your partner what you learned this morning. That way you are both doing spaced repetition and movement.

  • Use many senses (multi-sensory learning) (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). You learn more when using more senses. Ideas:

– If the teacher is lecturing (just talking), shadow silently (repeat silently). This adds physical (haptic/kinesthetic) action plus additional auditory input. And you are already watching so that is visual. [Ed.: that was a sneaky spaced repetition, Marc!]

– If the teacher is talking with no PowerPoint, or a PowerPoint with lots of words and few pictures, imagine images to go with each key point.

– Make mind maps for note-taking and note-making. Use several different colors, writing styles, etc. Add pictures, dates, etc. This is active learning.

Learn to deal with stress. You will experience stress. Everyone does. And it is not necessarily a bad thing.

What matters is how we deal with it. The first idea, go for emotion, suggests looking for interesting topics, not easy tasks. They might be more challenging but that increases “good stress.” To deal with other kinds of stress, try to exercise for at least 30 minutes three days a week. Some people like meditation. Yoga is good. Try slow, deep breathing, counting silently as you do it: breathe out (through the mouth)-2-3-4-5-6, hold your breath 2-3-4-5, breathe in (through the nose) 2-3-4, hold 2-3-4-5. Do this 5-10 times. You can even do it on the train / bus if it isn’t too crowded. No one will notice. Try it in class before tests, presentations, etc.

Break lectures into 10-minute chunks mentally (Medina, 2014). It would be best if teachers broke up their talks into 10-minute parts—but many don’t.

But you can in your mind. If you can do this without losing track of what the teacher is saying, take a 30-second mental break every ten minutes. Breathe deeply, stretch (even though you are in your chair), think of a word or picture that describes the last ten minutes. Then focus on the teacher again.

Get enough sleep (Medina, 2014). OK, this isn’t about boring classes, but it is an issue for many students.

Sleep is when information moves from working memory to long-term memory. This happens in your hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with memory. Your hippocampus is just as important to your learning as your university campus. Before tests, an hour of sleep is at least equal to an hour of studying. If you have time and a place to do it, take a short nap (a short sleep) early or mid-afternoon. A NASA study found that a 26-minute nap leads to a 54% increase in alertness and a 34% increase in productivity (Stilwell, 2021). (BTW, I’m not suggesting sleeping in class! As your teacher knows, that’s what faculty meetings are for.)


Marc Helgesen is a professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University, Sendai. He is an author of over 185 articles, books and textbooks including the English Firsthand series (Pearson) and English Teaching and the Science of Happiness (ABAX).


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