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Brain Engagement: A Look at Chemical Reactions in the Classroom

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By Stephanie Knight, EdD
Adjunct Faculty, College of Education

Instead of student engagement, we should focus on brain engagement! It is possible to influence students’ brain chemistry. This means that students would be wholly and fully engaged. Educating the whole child takes on a whole new meaning when an educator can engage all parts of the brain throughout the class time.

Many have attempted to describe what student engagement is. One of the foremost experts is Phil Schlecty (1994), who notes that students who are engaged are enticed by their work, persist no matter the difficulties and are excited about their accomplishments. Adela Solis (2008) from the Intercultural Development Research Association adds that a student who is substantially engaged – versus procedurally engaged by just following the rules – pays attention to the routines of instruction but also “interacts with the content of the lesson in a deep and thoughtful manner.”

So, if we know the meaning of engagement, then we must know how to achieve it and cause certain chemicals in the brain to react. According to brain-based education expert Eric Jensen (2013), the brain chemicals that can be influenced and affected in the classroom are serotonin, dopamine, cortisol and norepinephrine. Stimulating these four neurotransmitters will lead to the brain being fully engaged, therefore creating the ideal learning environment.

Serotonin: Setting the Mood

Serotonin is the mood regulator. Jensen (2013) notes that classroom rituals, community and friendships can boost serotonin levels and create a “living room” effect in the classroom via the environment.

When students first enter the classroom, their emotions are engaged and their minds are attending to the atmosphere. According to Marzano and Pickering in their highly acclaimed book, The Highly Engaged Classroom (2010), students ask themselves certain questions when they are present in the classroom, such as “How do I feel?” One way to look at this question is through a lens of aestheticism. The classroom should look pleasing and be conducive to learning. Things like plants, student work displays and cozy places for students to read can help make the classroom look pleasing and make students feel comfortable.

Teachers can also set the mood by being positive and enthusiastic. For example, they can greet each student at the door with a smile. This can create an emotional bond by increasing serotonin levels. It also sets the tone for the upcoming class time and makes sure students’ brains are ready for learning.

Cortisol: Priming the Pump

Many students shut down the minute class begins. This may be due to too much screen time, lack of nutrition or home stressors, which cause cortisol levels to be elevated. Relational difficulties can also cause cortisol to rise. This means that peer challenges (within or outside of class) can end up obstructing learning. Jensen (2013) explains that a rise in cortisol is the “body’s way of prepping for surviving.”

So, before the lesson even begins, educators need to ensure that the peer relations in the classroom are positive. This may mean doing some icebreakers or setting up rules for social interactions to be constructive – any putdowns will not be tolerated. Educators must invest time in cooperative learning strategies to allow for social connections. This may take more class time in the beginning of the year, or when needed during the year, but the payoff is worth it.

Dopamine: Tapping into the Reward and Pleasure Center

Martha Burns (2012) notes that dopamine is released in the brain when we are rewarded.  Learning about new things can be very rewarding. Therefore, dopamine levels increase in the brain to help that new information stick. Ann Connelly (2011) suggests that teachers begin a lesson with something relevant to students’ lives. She recommends starting with a problem for students to solve in their cooperative learning groups.

One strategy that can be helpful is a brainstorming activity called “Pass the Plate.” This requires a group of four students to pass a paper plate, stopping at each person to write his/her idea down. Upon finishing, the teacher can call on students to stand and share.

Unpredictable moments or out of-the-box experiences like turning the lights out for an audio exercise can also help keep the excitement going and the pleasure center activated. Even adding music at the right time helps create a more imaginative classroom. These pleasurable moments allow the brain to be more receptive to information because dopamine levels have risen. For example, students can walk and talk to lively music while processing information; they can write to 60-beats-per-minute music to enter a mind-wandering mode.

The final piece to increasing dopamine levels is reinforcing learning and giving effective feedback. This can be done individually and as a whole class. For example, when a teacher says “good job” to a student, it may fall on deaf ears. Effective feedback is specific and timely. It shows that the teacher is paying attention to what that student needs. So, instead of saying, “good job,” the teacher can frame the words in a way that reinforces the desired behavior: “I love how you overcame that last grade with better study habits. I can tell you are really trying.” It’s all about framing words in a positive way.

Likewise, when talking to a whole class, teachers can consider the framing effect (Jensen, 2013). For example, instead of the teacher saying, “Well, you all bombed that last quiz. Only one of you did well and the rest failed,” she could say, “I can see many of you tried on that last quiz. Let’s put our heads together and think of what we can do to help us master this next one for all of us!” Framed with a positive spin, the second comment makes students feel they are capable.

Norepinephrine: Moving and Learning

The final neurotransmitter we want to release and increase is norepinephrine. According to Jensen (2013), norepinephrine affects many areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, which can influence where we direct attention. This means it is influenced by all of the above activities, but one thing that can encourage its release is movement. When norepinephrine is released, less distraction and focus occur. According to Jensen, the “part of the brain that processes movement is the same part that processes learning” (Jensen, 2005). Therefore, teachers should encourage students to move around. Every 10 minutes, a two-minute burst of movement like Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up; Walk, Pair, Share; or even brain break stretching, can make all the difference in releasing norepinephrine and other transmitters, thus helping students retain learning and increasing focus and engagement.

Engaging students means engaging their brains wholly with the release and increase (or decrease in some cases) of the four main neurotransmitters. The takeaway for all of us is to make sure we think brain engagement – not just student engagement – and make the most of our classes with these chemical reactions!

Grand Canyon University’s College of Education helps prepare future and current educators to learn, lead and serve. Learn more about us by visiting our website or contacting us using the Request More Information button at the top of the page.

References

  • Burns, M. (2012). Dopamine and learning: What the brain’s reward center can teach educators. Scientific Learning. Retrieved from scilearn.com/blog/dopamine-learning-brains-reward-center-teach-educators
  • Connelly, A. (2011). Tips to make your anticipatory set interesting to students. Examiner.com. Retrieved from examiner.com/article/tips-to-make-your-anticipatory-set-interesting-to-students
  • Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
  • Jensen, E. (2013). What brain insights can boost your student’s classroom success? jensonlearning.com. Retrieved from jensenlearning.com/news/brain-insights-boost-your-students-success/brain-based-learning
  • Klem, A. M., & Connell, J. P. (2004). Relationships matter: Linking teacher support to student engagement and achievement. Journal of School Health, 74(7).
  • Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Hefelbower, T. (2012). The highly engaged classroom. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.
  • Reinisch, S. (2012). How comfortable classrooms lead to a better student community. Concordia Online Education. Retrieved from education.cu-portland.edu/blog/news/welcoming-classrooms-better-students/
  • Schlechty, P. (1994). Increasing student engagement. Missouri Leadership Academy.
  • Solís, A. (2008). Teaching for cognitive engagement materializing the promise of sheltered instruction. Intercultural Development Research Association. Retrieved from idra.org/idra_newsletter/april_2008_student_engagement/teaching_for_cognitive_engagement/

More About Dr. Knight:

Stephanie KnightStephanie Knight, EdD, is an experienced 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts educator. She inspires students to think critically and creatively. With that, she loves to see her students grow in their writing with expressive flair. She, herself, continues to work on her own writing process. Stephanie earned her Bachelor of Science in Business at the University of Colorado in Boulder, her certification in K-8, 7-12, English as a second language, English, Principal, and her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Arizona State University. She taught in Title One schools for eight years helping them grow from underperforming to excelling, then in an independent school, and now is part of GCU’s adjunct faculty where she teaches graduate level education and reading courses. She continues to be committed to seeing the next generation of teachers be successful in educating our youth to a bright future.