Studying the Brain in English Class: Students React!

Studying the Brain in English Class: Students React!

By: Stephen M. Ryan

Why not teach our students about their brains?

This is the suggestion I made in our November 2021 Think Tank. It wasn’t a total shot in the dark. I had been experimenting with using Think Tank articles, recommended videos, and other brain-y materials, in my Reading and Listening classes for a year or so before I made the suggestion. The original Think Tank article gives many of the hows and whats. I’ve continued to develop these ideas since.[1]

[1] We have also been developing resources for teaching about the brain in simple English, partly with students’ needs in mind.

Why not ask students what they think about being taught about their brains?

This is my new thought. Nothing scientific at this stage. I just added some questions to homework assignments and tests. I know this isn’t the greatest way to get totally honest feedback, but I was very heartened by the students’ responses.

The first question I asked them was: “What do you think about learning about the brain in our class?” Here are some of the answers I got, in no particular order:

    1. I think it is very interesting. It is important for us as students.
    2. I think it is good because I can understand about the brain and think of a good way for the brain.

This doesn’t make much sense, though, unless I tell you what exactly we studied about the brain:

  • We started with a video about the dangers of sitting too long; moved on to reading a Think Tank text about taking Energy Breaks every 20 minutes in class; watched some exercise videos, and read some examples of Energy Breaks on Marc Helgesen’s website.
  • We then looked at a video about the importance of sleep and read a text about how going to bed the night before a test can get students higher grades than studying into the night.
  • Finally, we began to look at the workings of the human memory, starting with the students’ own tips on how to study for our twice-weekly vocabulary test and then looking at a text on short- and long-term memory. There will be more on this after the summer break, when we watch some videos about Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve and the wonder that is spaced repetition.

Now back to the students’ responses:

    1. I think it is very interesting. I mostly don’t know about the brain. I would like to learn more information about the brain.
    2. I thought we need exercise to send oxygen to the brain.
    3. I think learning about the brain was interesting.
    4. At first, I thought the study of the brain is difficult. But it is very interesting. It is good for many people.
    5. I [thought] that learning about the brain [would be] too difficult in English but when I understood it, I was very happy and want to study it more.
    6. I think learning about the brain is important. If I know about my brain, I can do something better because I know about myself.

That’s 8 of the 10 students who took the test. The other two chose not to answer, but I found a lot of encouragement in the words of these eight students.

Another question asked specifically about Energy Breaks. We have been doing them regularly, every 20 minutes, in class since we learned about them, and the students have actually designed some of their own. I had been a little worried about using English class time for what might look more like a Physical Education lesson, but it seems my worries were not shared by the students:

What do you think about using Energy Breaks in our class?

    1. I think it’s good because I become fine when I was sleepy.
    2. I think it is very good.
    3. I think it is necessary for students because students can focus more on studying and our test scores increase.
    4. I think it is a very good activity. I am usually sitting for about 90 minutes. I feel very tired. So, using Energy Breaks in our class is a big advantage to me.
    5. I could change my mind when it was tired, but when I took Energy Breaks I could think well and study hard.
    6. I think using Energy Breaks was good for our class.
    7. I felt relaxed after doing it. I want to do it in another class. It can improve studying anything.
    8. I think we should move not only in English class but also other classes. I learned that Energy Breaks are important. I think it is good that we can be healthy when we move for only one minute.
    9. Thanks to Energy Breaks, I’m not sleepy in English lessons. And can focus on the class. I want to do Energy Breaks in other classes.
    10. It is a good idea. I can focus on the class more, because I move my body so I become not sleepy in the class.

That’s 10 out of 10! and strong motivation for me to take my kitchen timer to class each time, set it for 20 minutes, and get everyone on their feet every time it rings.

One thing I really liked about these answers was that they were not just saying “Yeah, teacher. Great idea,” but were showing understanding of why we were doing the Energy Breaks. This reminded me of a task I had given to last year’s students to help them review (or, at least, keep in mind) our lessons during the winter break. Here is the task, together with one student’s responses:

"Join me?"
Stephen M. Ryan
TT Author

So, there you have it. I find enough encouragement here to make me want to continue my efforts to help students learn about their brains in English class. Join me?

Stephen M. Ryan teaches at Sanyo Gakuen University, in Okayama, Japan. He is lucky enough to see the same students twice a week, once for a Reading lesson and again for a Listening lesson.

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