There’s no Magic Formula but the Science of Learning can help

About 6 years ago I became obsessed with finding some sort of magic formula of what a successful lesson plan should look like. I got into neuroscience trying to find answers to how our brains learn and what we should be doing as teachers to make learning more effective. But do you know that feeling you have deep down that the answer is going to disappoint you?

Eager to learn more about the brain at the University of Bristol

That’s exactly what happened in the first week of January. I had just returned from Switzerland where I’d spent New Years’ Eve with my aunt and cousin eager to attend the first lesson of Cognitive Neuroscience and Classroom Practice at the University of Bristol. My excitement was twofold. Firstly, because this unit seemed to have been tailormade for me and, secondly because the tutor was my brilliant professor Paul Howard-Jones. 

Then it happened. 

Halfway through the lesson, he said that we were not going to learn the magic formula that I had been seeking. He said that maybe, to be quite fair, all neuroscience can do is confirm what we’ve been doing all along and give us new insights into a couple of new things. 

I sort of knew it. To be fair, I had always known it and finally started looking at the beauty of it all. We have been doing the right things after all. For the better part, anyway. As John Hattie puts it: 

Nearly everything we do has some positive impact on students

John Hattie, 2012

Indeed, we can say that teachers have been teaching for millennia and students have been learning (some better, some worse). Despite disagreeing with Hattie (stay tuned for my next post explaining why), the impact that realization had on me was liberating. It confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine and allowed me to focus on the things that could have a positive impact on our students but we are not doing as much as we could in the classroom. 

That was when it hit me! The objective of my dissertation at the University of Bristol became crystal clear. I decided to conduct a thematic analysis on what authors have contributed to the Science of Learning regarding effective classroom strategies and devise a scale based on it to help teachers reflect.

More than 150 strategies later, all condensed into 6 themes that now contain around 30 classroom strategies that should work better according to the Science of Learning (neuroscience, psychology, and pedagogy play a huge role here), allow me to share some of the things that we are not using as often as we could that may have an enormously positive effect on students.

  1. Pretesting

Researchers have found a positive correlation between pretesting – applying a test at the beginning of the lesson – and performance. A quick quiz about the content that will be discussed in that particular lesson is likely to raise students’ awareness and curiosity about the subject and keep them more engaged to find out what they got wrong and why they got some things right (Kornell et al. 2009; Little & Bjork, 2016). It is also an effective way to activate students’ prior knowledge and, consequently, facilitate the learning process (Brod et al. 2013; Shing & Brod, 2016)

How to do it?

Right at the beginning of the lesson, use Kahoot, handouts, or flashcards to ask students questions about the content they are about to learn. Do not get them to work in pairs or groups at this stage. Working individually will most likely guarantee that everyone tries their best to retrieve the information they need to get the right answers and will not have their thought process interrupted by someone else. 

  1. Retrieval practice

Repeated retrieval of memory items increases declarative memory consolidation and improves students’ long-term learning (Karpicke, 2012; Dunlosky et al., 2013). Wirebring et al. (2015) have also demonstrated that the act of constantly retrieving information will create different representations of it in the brain and, therefore, make its retrieval more easily prompted.

How to do it?

After presenting new content, give students a couple of minutes to practice and then ask everyone to retrieve that knowledge individually before moving on to the next topic. This could be as simple as asking students to write down what they can remember, have understood, or reflect on that for 30 seconds or a minute before sharing it with someone or engaging in another activity. 

  1. Spaced repetition

For declarative memory to be consolidated in the brain, sleep is required.  Newly learned information stored in the hippocampus temporarily is replayed in the brain during sleep to make more representations and long-lasting memories (Maquet et al. 2000). Revising content only once after that lesson or doing homework on the same day might be a waste of cognitive resources as it would be more beneficial, based on the notions of spacing effect and memory consolidation, to revisit it the next day after sleeping and in future sessions (Henderson, Weighall, Brown, & Gaskell, 2012; Seehagen, Konrad, Herbert, & Schneider, 2015).

How to do it?

Create a revision timetable. Categorize the topic you’re teaching into codes (Lesson 1 Topic 1 – L1T1) and plan your future lessons with quick pop quizzes to help students revise. Start applying the quizzes a day after the content was introduced, then increase the distance between the last revision session and the next one. Try something like this:

L1T1 quiz in L2, L4, L10, and L15

L2T1 quiz in L3, L5, L11, and L16

You can also use the color-coded tags technique that you can access here.

Remember to assign homework to be done at least the next day after the content was introduced. 

  1. Brain breaks

Even though there is no consensus about how long we can focus, it probably lies somewhere between 10 and 30 minutes (Stuart & Rutherford, 1978;  Davis, 1993; McKeachie, 2006), and if we get more information than what our working memory can handle, generally between 2 and 9 chunks, we normally experience cognitive overload (Miller, 1956; Sweller, 1988; and Cowan, 2001). So, just like hitting the gym to work out, we should ideally apply focused effort (lifting weights) and then take a break (rest) between series. This will allow our brains to shift from the focused mode of thinking into the diffuse mode, which will start the consolidation process and free our working memory for more information (Oakley, 2014).

How to do it?

Get a Pomodoro timer or use one online and set the mark to 15, 20, or 25 minutes. Tell your students everyone is going to be working hard during that period and when the timer goes off, they will have a quick break (it could be 1, 2, 3, 4, or even 5 minutes). During that break, allow students to do whatever they choose: they can listen to music, they can watch a quick video, they can play a game, they can stand up and stretch, they can sit with someone else and talk about anything. The idea is to have them relax a little so that they can keep their attention span high and facilitate memory consolidation. You can read more about it here.

  1. Attitudes and beliefs about learning

Everything mentioned before can be very useful and important strategies, however, it might not mean much if our students do not believe in their potential to learn and, even worse, if we do not believe in our students’ potential to learn. Research on 1) growth mindset (Dweck, 2008); 2) metacognition (Karpicke et al. 2009; Dunlosky et al. 2013); 3) brain plasticity (Blackwell et al. 2007; Myers et al. 2016; Paunesku et al. 2015); and 4) self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997; Schunk et al., 2008) suggest they are great allies in any educational setting. Respectively, we can summarize them as 1) the idea that our intelligence is not fixed and can be improved through effort and constructive feedback; 2) “thinking about thinking” or “learning how to learn”, that is, using study strategies based on the Science of Learning; 3) the idea that the brain is changed by experience and that it can always learn; and 4) the quality of people who can successfully set, maintain, and achieve goals and expected outcomes.

How to do it?

Do not just focus on content. Promote the idea that effort and dedication are key if they want to be successful learners and acknowledge that. Take time from your lesson to teach your students facts about the brain and how it changes structurally when we learn. Tell them that there are better or more effective study strategies and teach them (you can start with the list I’m providing here). Help them organize their studies and set goals. You can use some concepts of strategic planning or project management. 

Use these strategies and tell me how it went. After all, there’s no magic formula. We need to be critical about our practice and remember that science is still making important discoveries.

If you want to read about about the contributions of SoL and how it can be used in your English classroom, check out this article I co-authored with Hall Houston.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York:W. H. Freeman.

Blackwell, L. A., Trzesniewski, K. H. and Dweck, C. S. 2007. Theories of intelligence and achievement across the junior high school transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78: 246–263. 

Brod, G., Werkle-Bergner, M., & Shing, Y. L. (2013). The influence of prior knowledge on memory: a developmental cognitive neuroscience perspective. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 13. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00139

Cowan N. (2001) The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 24:87–185

Davis BG. (1993) Tools for Teaching. San Franciso, CA: Jossey-Bass

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013).  Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques:  Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology.  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58.

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Henderson, L. M., Weighall, A. R., Brown, H., & Gaskell, M. G. (2012). Consolidation of vocabulary is associated with sleep in children. Developmental Science, 15, 674–687

Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163

Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?. Memory, 17(4), 471-479.

Kornell, N., Hays, M. J., & Bjork, R. A. (2009). Unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance subsequent learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35, 989–998

Little JL, Bjork EL. (2016) Multiple-choice pretesting potentiates learning of related information. Memory & Cognition.

Maquet, P., Laureys, S., Peigneux, P., Fuchs, S., Petiau, C., Phillips, C., . . . Cleeremans, A. (2000). Experience-dependent changes in cerebral activation during human rem sleep. Nature Neuroscience, 3(8), 831-6.

McKeachie WJ. (2006) Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston: Hougton-Mifflin

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review63 (2): 81–97

Myers, C. A., Wang, C., Black, J. M., Bugescu, N., & Hoeft, F. (2016). The matter of motivation: Striatal resting-state connectivity is dissociable between grit and growth mindset. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(10), 1521-1527.

Oakley BA. (2014). A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin

Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Romero, C., Smith, E. N., Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. Psychological science, 26(6), 784-793.

Seehagen, S., Konrad, C., Herbert, J. S., & Schneider, S. (2015). Timely sleep facilitates declarative memory consolidation in infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112, 1625–1629

Shing, Y., & Brod, G. (2016). Effects of prior knowledge on memory: Implications for education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 10(3), 153-161.

Schunk D. H., Pintrich P. R., Meece J. L. (2008). Motivation in Education: Theory, Research and Applications, 3rd Edn., Upper saddle River, NJ: Merrill-Prentice Hall 

Stuart J, Rutherford RJ. (1978) Medical Student Concentration during Lectures. Lancet 312: 514 –516

Sweller, J. (1988), Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12: 257–285

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.

Wirebring, L. K., Wiklund-Hörnqvist, C., Eriksson, J., Andersson, M., Jonsson, B., & Nyberg, L. (2015). Lesser neural pattern similarity across repeated tests is associated with better long-term memory retention. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(26)

Neuromyths and potential classroom implications: Part 2 – Learning Styles, Fixed Intelligence, Forget about Arts

This is the second part of the 4-post series on how neuroscience can be used in the classroom. If you missed the first blog post, read it here.

Let’s get down to business, shall we? What are some of the most commonly spread neuromyths in educational settings? Here’s my list with 3 of them:

1. Learning Styles

By now, you must have heard that the whole learning styles thing is a neuromyth. If you haven’t or even if you don’t agree, no need to change the way you teach. Well, not necessarily. Let’s look at how it started and what it actually means for us, teachers, and our students.


It was in the 70s that the idea gained popularity and, in the following decades, many authors either supported it or created their own models. The two most famous were perhaps Walter Burke Barbe with his Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic (VAK) model in 1979, reinforced by Neil Fleming, and David Kolb’s with his Accommodator-Converger-Diverger-Assimilator (look at what happened in The Divergent Series, labeling people like that!)

Even Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: Multiple Intelligence Theory in 1983 has contributed to the myth. He has, however, explained on many occasions that

[…] by the middle 1990s, I had noticed a number of  misinterpretations of the theory—for example, the confusion of intelligences with learning styles […]

Howard Gardner (2003, p. 8)

Why is it a myth?

Many studies (look at this metanalysis by Paschler et al. 2010) have demonstrated that we do not learn best if we learn through our preferred learning style (they tested mostly VAK). In fact, there are subjects or activities that rely heavily upon just one of those modalities and would be quite hard or impossible to learn for certain types of learners, which doesn’t happen. How to teach physical geography without using maps, for example? Also, we know that our working memory capacity is quite limited and that memory retention benefits from multiple representations of the information we’re learning. That means that taking a lot of aural (auditory) input at once without anything visual to relate it to is likely to cause cognitive overload and be quickly forgotten.

What does that all mean in the classroom?

It means that it’s better to listen to and look at something than to do just one of the other. It’s the concept of dual coding (Paivio, 1991). It also means that teaching as if everyone had all three VAK learning styles is actually a good thing because you’re varying your input. But, assigning homework or teaching a one-to-one lesson, for example, based on a specific learning style and neglecting the others will most likely be bad for the students.

2. Fixed Intelligence

Ever heard?

I have no talent for this

I wasn’t cut ou to be that

I don’t have that gene

These are common sentences people who are struggling use to justify why they can’t seem to learn something. But is that really the case?


Most likely the IQ test fever originated after the publication of Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon’s book in 1905. It became possible to “quantify” kids’ intelligence or mental age using a score that varied from 90 (normal intelligence) to over 140 (genius). Many schools, parents, and institutions adopted the IQ test and started labeling kids and giving prognoses.

Why is it a myth?

The intelligence of an individual in not a fixed quantity

The scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of the intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.

Alfred Binet

That’s right. Binet himself said it was not possible to quantify people’s intelligence. Psychology now knows that there are individual differences (not actually multiple intelligences as discussed in Gardner 1983 and reviewed by Gardner in 2003) and neuroscience brings the notion of neuroplasticity, which, simply put, means that the brain can always learn and change itself through experience.

Perhaps the most popular author discussing this nowadays is Carol Dweck (2006) with the concept of Growth Mindset. She says that students who have a more Growth Mindset, that is, the belief that they can improve with effort and that their intelligence is not fixed, will likely achieve more than those who have a more Fixed Mindset, which refers to those who believe their intelligence is limited.

PS: we all have a little bit of both (Growth and Fixed) and it depends on what we are doing. A more Growth Mindset can be developed.

What does that all mean in the classroom?

If students’ intelligence can be improved, we must be careful about labels. A “weak” student does hold the potential to become the “strongest” in class. It all depends on having the right ingredients. An emotional connection with the teacher and the class, constructive feedback and adjusted practice, the clear notion that his/her intelligence is not static, the knowledge that our brains are plastic and constantly changing, some idea of metacognitive strategies (learning how to learn) and support are some of the ways we can make sure we develop our students’ intelligence. Also, a focus on the learning process over the product, and praising effort and dedication are great ways to develop a more Growth Mindset.

3. Forget about Arts: STEM over STEAM

In some countries, mine included, it feels like arts have become secondary in the curriculum. Why is that?


There’s a widespread notion that academic subjects are the best chance a kid will have at finding a job in the future. The rapid increase of Sciences, Technology, Engineerings, and Maths (STEM) and its potential to generate wealth for a country seem to have shifted schools’ focus. The whole thing probably goes back to a rather discriminatory view that musicians, painters, and dancers were bohemian people who produced nothing of added value. Even worse, artists have been persecuted in authoritarian regimes for the danger they offered their respective governments because of their “free-thinking minds” or potential connection with riots and a revolution. Two examples are the Nazis burning books that opposed their ideology or the Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China forbidding western musical instruments.

Let’s go even deeper. During the medieval Dark Ages, artists who opposed the views of the Catholic church or the king were also considered dangerous, even heretics, and were often imprisoned or executed.

Why is it a myth?

Arts are known to promote critical thinking and creativity, which may more easily lead to innovation (Boy, 2013; Madden et al., 2013). Focusing exclusively on STEM may lack the interdisciplinarity that is at the foundation of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS), described in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956). There are studies showing that long-term artistic experiences make our brains more plastic, that is, with the ability to constantly change structurally and learn, for a longer time (Münte et al., 2002, Schlegel et al., 2015). And, perhaps the most compelling evidence, several studies have found that integrating arts in the curriculum improve academic performance as they improve attention, memory, executive functions, and self-regulation (Gullatt, 2007; Diamond, 2012; Respress & Lufti, 2006)

What does that all mean in the classroom?

As the image at the beginning of this post indicates, art is essential for humans.

The “EARTH” without “ART” is just “EH”


I’d go further and say that education without art is also boring. That is precisely why we must integrate arts in the curriculum. It’s not stealing time from your students, time they could be using to practice more. It’s giving them the tools to be higher achievers, innovators, creative and free thinkers.

Use projects that involve photography or painting. Have students act in a play or sing and dance in a musical. Listen to music and analyze the lyrics, get them to compose their own and play their own instruments. Have a book fair or a reading club. Get your students to write their own tales or poems. Teach them how to build models or sculpt. Join the Maker Movement and create makerspaces in your school.

In short, put the “A” back in STEM.

That’s it for today’s neuromyths. If you’re eager to know more, follow me on Instagram (@edcrocks) and sign up for my asynchronous online courses here. You get 15% off in July!

Next week I’ll write about Drilling, Multitasking, and Emotions in Neuromyths part 3. Don’t miss it!




Learning Styles

Barbe, Walter Burke; Swassing, Raymond H.; Milone, Michael N. (1979). Teaching through modality strengths: concepts practices. Columbus, Ohio: Zaner-Bloser.

Coffield, Frank; Moseley, David; Hall, Elaine; Ecclestone, Kathryn (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review (PDF). London: Learning and Skills Research

Gardner, H. (2003). Multiple intelligences after twenty years. American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois21.

Kolb, David (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory: Retrospect and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie45(3), 255.

Paschler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2010). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119.

Fixed Intelligence

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY, US: Random House

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (2003). Multiple intelligences after twenty years. American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois21.

Kaufman, Alan S. (2009). IQ Testing 101. New York: Springer Publishing

Forget the Arts

Bloom, B.S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook: The Cognitive Domain. David McKay, New York.

Boy, Guy A. (2013). From STEM to STEAM: Toward a Human-Centred Education, Creativity & Learning Thinking. In Proceedings of the 31st European Conference on Cognitive Ergonomics, 3:1–3:7. ECCE ’13. New York, NY, USA: ACM.

Diamond, A. (2012). Activities and programs that improve children’s executive functions. Current directions in psychological science21(5), 335-341.

Gullatt, D. E. (2007, September). Research links the arts with student academic gains. In The Educational Forum (Vol. 71, No. 3, pp. 211-220). Taylor & Francis Group

Madden, M. E., Baxter, M., Beauchamp, H., Bouchard, K., Habermas, D., Huff, M., … & Plague, G. (2013). Rethinking STEM education: An interdisciplinary STEAM curriculum.
Procedia Computer Science, 20, 541-546

Münte, T. F., Altenmüller, E., & Jäncke, L. (2002). The musician’s brain as a model of
neuroplasticity. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3(6), 473-478.

Respress, T., & Lutfi, G. (2006). Whole brain learning: The fine arts with students at risk. Reclaiming children and youth15(1), 24.

Schlegel, A., Alexander, P., Fogelson, S. V., Li, X., Lu, Z., Kohler, P. J., … & Meng, M. (2015).
The artist emerges: Visual art learning alters neural structure and function. NeuroImage,
105, 440-451.


Part 3. Consolidation

We finally got to the end of this three-post series on how to use the Science of Learning to make learning more effective! Check out Parts 1 (ENGAGE) and 2 (BUILD) right here and here. Don’t forget to sing up for my Nat Geo Learning webinar here.


Ok, so we’ve discussed how you need to first ENGAGE your student (or yourself as a learner) and BUILD on PRIOR KNOWLEDGE to achieve the INTENDED LEARNING OUTCOME (ILO). That sounds great and, to be fair, we can pretty much check if our students have indeed learned by the end of that lesson, right? We normally set up a PRODUCTION phase or do a quick review by asking questions or even have them answer a quick activity or survey. There’s just one problem. I can’t remember how to calculate Torricelli’s Equation or how to explain the different layers of our planet from the surface to the innermost part. Any organic chemistry left? Nah…not much. History? More than any other subject. English? Well, I still remember a lot of that.

Catch my drift? At one point in my life I actually used to know how to apply Bhaskara’s formula (I love this example because it kinda shows how much “useless” stuff we learn at school). I could build long chains of organic compounds and discuss in detail how the Earth’s crust had been formed. And my teachers asked me a bunch of questions about those topics and I was able to answer them. They were assessing learning. It turns out that now I’m pretty much hopeless in any of those topics.
What is consolidation then? How does knowledge consolidate in the brain and what does it take? Let’s take a look at some principles and go back to the examples above. If we search the word CONSOLIDATION on Google, that’s what we get:




1. the action or process of making something stronger or more solid.

2. the action or process of combining a number of things into a single more effective or coherent whole.

Great, but how long does a particular knowledge last in our memories? I guess the examples I mentioned before didn’t consolidate properly in my brain since I am unable to retrieve them, right? I mean, I know I once learned them, but I can’t really apply them. The English language, on the other hand, is still here. I started learning it when I was around 7 and I’d say it’s pretty much consolidated. What made a difference?


Rehearsing is basically repeating or practicing a new piece of knowledge in different contexts for a long period of time. After high school, I did not have to use my knowledge on tectonic plates or the structure of benzene, erm… like… ever again! Even though these facts might still be there, I can’t really access them. The problem with rehearsing is that it must be continuous or else we really do forget. Neuroimaging studies show that people who have just learned some arithmetic (like multiplication) have a lot of activation in different areas of the brain, including the frontal areas, responsible for the WORKING MEMORY. However, after training (or REHEARSAL), less activation occurs (especially in the frontal areas) as the new knowledge becomes more automatic and, thus, more easily retrieved.

I do remember a cool physics class we had in which we observed the water volume in a tube before and after we added an ice cube in it. The level raised a little and our teacher asked us what would happen after that ice cube melted. Most of us answered that the water level would go back to where it was before adding the ice cube or that it would increase a little but not reach the level it had with the ice cube inside. We were surprised to learn that the level between a) tube +water + solid ice cube = b) tube + water + melted ice cube (also known as water). We had that experiment and discussed why it happened in class and told our parents about and, and, and… We applied that knowledge in different contexts and our brains created different representations of it, which is quite useful as we have various paths to access this memory. By the way, if you don’t believe the water level doesn’t change, do the experiment yourself or check out this explanation. That brings me to:


This has to do with using that knowledge in several different ways and contexts so that you can access it more easily in the future. “Learning things over and over again” is a great way to add NEURAL HOOKS (different cues or associations) to help you find that information in your memory. It’s kinda finding your way to your favorite camping spot in the woods. If you have only one path memorized, what happens if you don’t go back to that place for many months or years and the bushes grow over it, covering the path? If you go back, it’ll be hard to find your way there. Now, if you have walked different paths to get to that same spot and you can’t remember one, you’ll be able to pick up another. In a study conducted on subjects learning a second language, there was a lot of activation in very specific areas of the brain in very similar patterns when they were at the initial learning stages, indicating that they were using various strategies to learn, however, once they became more familiar with the vocabulary over the course of their classes, areas in the parietal lobe were more activated (much less activation in the frontal areas) but with different patterns this time. This means that that knowledge had become more automatic and that they had multiple representations of it as the patterns changed, making it easier for them to retrieve that information.

Ok, this next step is probably one of our favorites! It’s what we spend 1/3 of our lives doing and it feels we’re not getting enough of it. You’ve guessed it right:


For those of you who thought sleeping was for the weak, well, I have great news. Sleeping is for the ones who want to learn effectively. Both our SLOW WAVE and RAPID EYE MOVEMENT (REM) SLEEP play a very important role in DECLARATIVE MEMORY (ideas, concepts, facts) and PROCEDURAL MEMORY (abilities, habits) CONSOLIDATION. If you want more information on that, check this great TED-Ed video. What does that tell us about when to do HOMEWORK or REVISION? If they are types of REHEARSAL and we need sleep to help consolidate memories, should they be done on the same day that we learned that new knowledge and not revisited in the next class? Think about it.


STRESS is one of those words that got a really bad reputation, nevertheless, it is an important learning tool. Being slightly stressed, in a good way, means you’re alert and attending to the instruction. If it arouses you because it’s interesting and fun or even creepy and bizarre, this will help you consolidate that memory in a more effective way. The problem is when FEAR, for instance, takes over and our cognitive resources attend to trying to keep us alive or not exposed to something that might embarrass or harm us in any way. Having a strong emotional connection with our teacher and feeling excited about what we’re learning is a great way to make sure we are in fact learning well.

To wrap up our the last blog post in our series, let’s use the construction analogy again. Imagine a pickup truck driving to the construction site carrying bricks, concrete, wood, screws, nails, buckets, etc. The driver always takes the same route. What happens if that route is closed and no GPS, Google Maps, Waze or whatever is available? The driver might get lost trying to find another route. The pickup truck is our WORKING MEMORY and it can carry only a limited amount of things to the construction site, our LONG-TERM MEMORY. In order to get to the construction site effectively, the driver will certainly need to repeat it a few times (REHEARSAL) and, to make sure they won’t get lost, they should certainly find other routes (APPLYING KNOWLEDGE). Driving without enough SLEEP will likely cause an accident and stop those materials from reaching their destination. If the driver is excited about getting there, or even a little pressed for time (just the right amount of STRESS), they will probably pay more attention and drive more effectively to make sure they arrive OK and on time.

In neurosciencetish (the language of neuroscience), we need to give our students the chance to REHEARSE the new knowledge, APPLYING it in different contexts over a long period of time, to both automatize it and unload the WORKING MEMORY to be free for more knowledge, in an environment with the right amount of STRESS and AROUSAL, to make sure we have their attention and hold them accountable for their learning, and get a good night’s SLEEP to consolidate those memories more effectively.

So, to be fair, I’m not hopeless in any of those subjects I mentioned and neither are your students. We can always learn. We just need to REHEARSE, APPLY, SLEEP well, and be a little STRESSED and AROUSED about the right things at the right time.

The final weapons for improved consolidation and retention (and you can read them on my blog with some references):




Tough job, isn’t it? That’s why we chose to be teachers. The good news is: some types of knowledge do can be forgotten depending on the path you chose and it won’t really affect your life. Do you remember all those formulas you learned in physics and maths?

You can check out my lesson plan here and also access the Science of Learning – Engage, Build, Consolidate website.

Neuroscience of Learning 4 – What a week!

My notes during Mirela Ramacciotti’s brilliant Mind, Brain, and Education course

Hello, folks!

Hope you’re all doing well and getting ready to start another great semester. I can tell you that I am! I apologize for not writing anything earlier this week, but I think I have the perfect excuse. I’ve been teaching and learning about neuroscience, psychology, and education. Here’s what I did:

-Went to Fortaleza to talk about the Neuroscience behind Second Language Acquisition at the National Geographic Learning Conference side by side with Katherine Stannett, one of the authors of Impact.


-Went to São Paulo to take the Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) course given by Mirela Ramacciotti, my bright partner and head of the Braz-Tesol MBE SIG.


-Came back home to teach the Neuroscience and Learning course to nine teachers.



The purpose of this entry is to share some of the highlights and five more tips about neuroscience (psychology, and education are also included).

HIGHLIGHT #1: Mirela Ramacciotti is the best teacher I’ve ever had!

WOW! That’s how I would describe having class with the one and only Mirela Ramacciotti. The reason I say that is because of the way I felt after I left the course: inspired, with the sensation I had learned so much, even though I’m familiar with the topic, and longing for more after 8 hours of intense studying. Also, we (the other participants and I) couldn’t stop talking about it for a second.

Mirela not only talks about some key concepts of this young and exciting science, but she also walks the talk. She is funny, incredibly knowledgeable, affectionate, and delighting. We couldn’t take our eyes off of her! The way she moved in the classroom, sat by the door to tell us stories, came closer to establish eye contact and really listened to our comments and questions… well, I can only say everyone would learn much more if they had teachers like Mirela. Based on my experience, here are the two first tips:

  1. Showing and telling is better than just showing or just telling: Mirela walked the talk when she could’ve just talked. Use the principle of Dual Coding to make your lessons more memorable, that is, give practical examples and apply them in class instead of just telling the theory. Use both images and sound.

This video might help with the concept:

2. Don’t label your students, even when they have “learning difficulties/problems”. If there’s one thing neuroscience knows it’s that our brains are incredibly plastic and can change the wiring as they go. Mirela showed us the case of Nico and Brooke, two boys who underwent a hemispherectomy – THEY HAD HALF OF THEIR BRAINS REMOVED! But, despite some movement impairment, they have developed as normal kids (now grown-ups) with all their cognitive functions. Read their story here.

Don’t forget to attend one of Mirela’s lectures or courses if you happen to be in the area. Here’s her website with more information:

HIGHLIGHT #2: Most of us, teachers, have very little information about how our memories work!

If you are an engineer and want to build something, you must know how much weight the materials you are going to use can take, right? If you’re a baker and want to bake a cake, you must know how many ingredients you are going to use and how much of each you need, correct? If you’re a personal trainer and want to help someone get fit, you must know how much they can take in each training session, mustn’t you? Why isn’t the same principle applied to teaching/learning? I realize my analogies differ on many levels, but why do we teach much more than what our students can handle? Is it because there’s too much to cover or because we simply don’t know how learning occurs? Here are two more tips to think about that:

3. There’s a limit to the amount of information we can take in. Sweller et al. discussed that in 1988 and came up with the concept of Cognitive Load Theory. There are ways we, teachers, can reduce the load and help our students make the transition between working memory and long-term memory. Here’s a video to help you grasp the concept:

4. Our memory can be improved. Trying to recall things we did a long time ago, creating associations with bizarre images and solving puzzles are great ways to make our memory better. Watch this wonderful TED video with Joshua Foer:

HIGHLIGHT #3: Understanding how our brains work is a fascinating subject to basically everyone!

“What a fascinating talk!” – These were Katherine Stannett’s words to me after my presentation at the Nat Geo Learning Conference in Fortaleza. Back in Goiânia WONDERFUL, GREAT, AMAZING, INTERESTING, INCREDIBLE and other similar words were predominant in my attendees’ comments after my Neuroscience of Learning course. It is fascinating to learn about the brain indeed, but as Mirela mentioned in her amazing course, quoting an expert in neuroscience:

“How far have we gone into discovering how our brains work? If the distance were 1 meter, we’ve only covered 3cm so far”

However, the little we already know can make a huge difference in the way we teach. So here’s my last tip of the day:

5. Learn about how we learn: Don’t replicate ideas, ideologies, and methods in the classroom if they don’t make sense from an MBE perspective. Learn the basic concepts and share them with everybody. This is the only way we can make education even more lasting and powerful. Here are some online courses, websites, and texts you can try:

As I mentioned before, WHAT A WEEK! But it gave me more energy to carry on with my mission of spreading the word about this exciting new science. I can’t wait to deliver more talks, take more courses (hopefully with Mirela again) and teach more people. Why don’t you join me in this education revolution? I could really use your help!

Check out my other blog entries about neuroscience here, here, and here.

Don’t forget to leave your comments here! After all, with interaction, we can create more memorable moments and make learning even more effective!


The Art of Presenting: Tips on how to deliver impacting presentations (and lessons)

Vídeo em português:

Versão em Português com links úteis:A Arte da Apresentação_Mini Apostila

From the top left: CCL Piauí, UniEvangélica Anápolis, Partners of the Américas Goiânia, IMPARH Fortaleza, Nat Geo Learning Conference Belo Horizonte, CCL Piauí, CCBEU Goiânia, and UEG Inhumas

If you are a teacher, and I’m assuming you are, have you ever wondered how many times you have delivered a presentation in your life? I’m going to present about presentations (meta-presentation :)) next week and I was forced to ask myself that question. Assuming that every lesson is a type of presentation and that I’ve been teaching for 12 years, on average 600 hours a year… wow! That’s a whopping total of 7,200 hours! Just considering lessons. If I include conferences, symposia, panels, workshops, and training sessions, I dare say that I’ve reached the 10,000 mark.

Now, does that make me a professional presenter? I’d say I have a lot of experience on the subject, which certainly enables me to discuss it and write some of the tips that I have come across or created myself. I’ve also noticed that my audience seems to be interested during the presentation and most of the listeners are satisfied at the end. How can I tell? I simply observe. I see them taking notes, nodding, asking questions, smiling and laughing. Some of them even want to take selfies.

So here are the 8 (or maybe more) most essential tips I can share with you:

1) 5W1H: WHAT – topic, WHO – audience, WHERE – venue, WHEN – date and time, WHY – purpose/mission, HOW – resources. All of these aspects need to be considered before anything else. Presenting about education technology to a group of 40-60-year-olds in a school with no projector on a Friday at 7 pm, because they need to get the credits, is completely different from presenting the same topic to a group of 20-30-year-olds in a high-tech auditorium with an interactive board and internet connection on a Wednesday morning because they want to innovate in the classroom. One change (in any of those aspects) will have dramatic consequences on the outcomes of your presentation.

2) Emotional connection and Respect: You are a person, not a robot. What differs from a live presentation and a recorded webinar or YouTube video? Being physically present is the perfect opportunity for you to make people like you. The simple fact that people can interact with you physically changes everything. It shows your audience that you took the time to come to them and that you respect them. Remember that their affective filter will also determine whether or not your presentation was positive.

3) Humor is a powerful tool: Use it! You don’t need to be a stand-up comedian, but you can certainly try to make people laugh (or at least smile). If the event is enjoyable, chances are they will remember for a longer time.

4) Design is another powerful element, but it isn’t everything. You can design with Powerpoint, Prezi, Canva, Google Slides, CorelDraw or Flash, but it might not be comparable to Sir Ken Robinson’s 20-min TED Talk with absolutely no resource other than his speech. If you’re going to invest in design, think outside the box. Innovate. Surprise. Use beautiful and impacting images, be minimalist (avoid visual pollution), and use short sentences, terms or none at all.

5) Interaction, Flow, and Brain Breaks:  If you talk for 1 hour, a very good way for you to keep the audience paying attention is to divide this hour into 3 or 4 blocks. You could do a short 5-min introduction about yourself, talk for 15 minutes and a quiz the audience on what you have just presented. That Brain Break should take no longer than 5 minutes. Quizzes, polls, and group work are great ways to make the audience more engaged. Pausing and reviewing give your talk a nice flow as well. It doesn’t feel that it is too much to take in.

6) Structure: Every presentation needs to be structured into at least 3 parts: 1) Introduction; 2) Development; and 3) Conclusion. But you also have to include the following: Index, Headings, References, Revision, Extension, and Conclusion.

7) Verbal and Non-verbal language: You need to sound confident and convey your message with your whole body, not just your mouth. Use the stage, move, use your hands to gesticulate, explore the intonation of your sentences, look at the audience, act as if you were performing a play.

8) Have fun! It is nice to share your knowledge with people. When you present, try to focus on the fact that people are there because they are interested in what you have to say. Be yourself and enjoy the moment.

I hope this very short entry can give you a better notion of what aspects to consider when you decide to make a presentation. I’d also like to share some of the resources you can use to complement Powerpoint and links to useful videos to help you become an awesome presenter.

If you can read in Portuguese, there’s a PDF file at the beginning of this page with interesting ideas I’ve been developing for my teacher training course.

Brilliant talk on how to get people interested in what you have to say:

How to really use Powerpoint:

Incredibly funny talk on how to deliver a presentation about nothing:

Neuroscience of Learning/Language Acquisition Part 3

Image may contain: 1 person, indoor

Speaking about the Neuroscience of Learning at the Nat Geo Learning Conference

Almost two weeks ago I had the incredible honor and privilege to present at the National Geographic Learning Conference. I was invited nearly two months ago by Rosane Vidmar, whom I can’t thank enough for the opportunity. That was when I realized I hadn’t posted anything related to neuroscience since my very first entries on this blog (You can find them here and here). So, given the wonderful feedback I got from my peer Claire Venables, who also brilliantly presented at the conference about CPD and Young Learners, and, naturally, from the audience in Belo Horizonte who welcomed us in such a friendly way, I’ve decided to write 5 more tips about how we actually learn.

I must confess one thing, though. This entry will be entirely based on the works and one of the lectures delivered by the Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California (UCLA). His name is Robert Bjork and if you watch this video, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Another point I’d like to make is that his findings have been successfully replicated by other authors and should not be taken lightly even when you realize – just like I did – that we don’t really know what makes our students learn more effectively. Look at it as a chance to slowly incorporate what science already knows and to rethink the way you teach.

Resultado de imagem
1. Learning should be easy, right? The easier the better. Not according to science. Bjork mentions what he calls the “desirable difficulty”. That’s the level of challenge and effort required by us to solve a task. If it’s too easy, it won’t stick that long and learning won’t be efficient. As many of us, ELT professionals, know, the right amount of challenge is key to motivation, but we should bear in mind that it is also key to long-term and effective learning. 

Check out more here:  Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.

Or watch this video:

2. Forgetting is essential to learning. If you think just because the student had a class they’ve learned, think again. And if you think they’ve learned after the class and after the midterms or finals, considering they had good grades, forget that thought. Quick question: How much of the test content can you actually remember a week after you’ve taken the test? How about two weeks after? A month? A semester? As learners, we need to allow our brains to forget whatever we have learned in order to force active retrieval. Most of the factors involved with forgetting are directly connected with learning efficiency. 

Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe and A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing. pp. 185–205.

Take a look at this short video:

3. Not making errors is a mistake – or should I say not making mistakes is an error?. Errors, incorrect choices due to lack of knowledge, and mistakes, incorrect choices due to slips, accidents, are both enemies of many educational settings around the world. However, they are fundamental if you’re after effective learning. Making an error will not only show you the wrong way, but it will also show you the right way by comparison. You’ll have more connections in your brain. Think of it as using Waze to go to an unknown address effortlessly and not really paying attention to the trajectory. If you do it, and you’re forced to drive back to the same place a week later without Waze, you might not remember how to get there. If you choose, from the very beginning, to use your knowledge of the city and build upon that to get to your destination – making the wrong turn here and there – you’ll have more connections in your brain and learning will stick more, allowing you to easily go back to that address in the future – without Waze.

Watch this:

4. Interleaved practice is better than blocked practice. Switching between tasks, or topics, when studying can be a wonderful way to improve learning. Our brains are not really programmed for monotony. Any change in the environment, the resource, and especially the content/topic is welcome. Instead of studying the same grammar structure to exhaustion before you move to something else, study it for a while, get a break, and then start something else. 


5. The last one is perhaps the most important. Performance is not learning. If your students got an A on their test, YAY! But it doesn’t mean they’ve learned. It means they’ve memorized the information to pass the test. If your students can perform a task well at any point, it also doesn’t mean they’ve learned. Knowing how to perform well can give the practitioner the illusion of mastery or learning. To make sure your students are learning, go beyond standardized tests and do more continuous assessment instead. 

Take a look at this:

Well, that’s all for today folks! Hope you find it useful.

Please give me some feedback about the post and share some of your thoughts as well.

Neuroscience of Learning/Second Language Acquisition – Part 2 – Neurociência da Aprendizagem/Aquisição de Segunda Língua – Parte 2

Neurociência da Aprendizagem_parte2 – texto em português


Ok, let’s go on with the learning tips from our new favorite subject: Neuroscience! It’s worth stressing that the claims contained in this post have been tested all over the world and, thus, are science-based, which means they shouldn’t be neglected. I do not wish to say that some of our traditional practices in the classroom must be completely discarded, I wish only to defend the idea that the teacher’s praxis must be based on 3 extremely important elements: 1) research-based techniques; 2) relationship with students (rapport); 3) reflection on teaching.

Therefore, the next 5 tips, as well as the ones from the last post about Neuroscience, will become the base for effective lesson planning, and, most importantly, student-centered classes. Before we continue, I’d like to address some terms:

a) Elicitation: Technique used to obtain the answers from students in an active way. It consists of stimulation, question (guidance), and reformulation. Example: In the geography class, the teacher shows a picture (stimulus) of a Brazilian biome and asks: “What kind of landscape is this?” (question/guidance). The students try to answer with the words: “forest”, “savannah”. The teacher may give more stimuli or ask more questions so that students realize that they have to change their answer (reformulation). This process occurs until the answer the teacher is looking for is obtained from the students. Some might know the word “biome”. Observe that at no point did the teacher say the answer, he only guided the discovery by the students.

b) Insight: connection, sudden understanding of something, idea to solve a problem. It occurs when our brains “connect” the dots and we see the relation between two or more ideas.

c) Cognition: knowledge, thinking. Knowledge acquisition process.

Now, let’s get down to business.

1. Always use the elicitation technique to check students’ previous knowledge and make them think critically about the topic. Neuroscience tells us that the pleasure of reaching a conclusion on our own (of having insights, with the release of serotonin, which gives us this pleasure feeling) creates stronger connections. Start with a stimulus (visual, auditory or bodily) and lead students to guided discovery whenever possible. What we want from the students is that eureka factor or aha moment!

Great article about pros and cons of eliciting:

For the eureka factor and aha moment, watch this short TED talk:

2. When the teacher asks: “Did you understand?”, it is very likely that those who didn’t won’t expose themselves, thus, the answer of most will be “YES”. Instead of checking comprehension with questions like that, use concept checking questions (CCQs). It also promotes “active recall”, which helps to consolidate memory.

Example: The physics teacher explained (or elicited from the students) the formula Force of Gravity = Mass X Acceleration and the concepts of each term. Rather than asking: “Did you understand what Force of Gravity is?”, she asks: “Well, how can we define Force of Gravity, how can we calculate it?”.

Read this excellent article on CCQs:

Great video about eliciting and CCQs:

3. The same way children benefit from playing, teenage and adult brains also need pauses. Neuroscience has already demonstrated that our short-term memory storage capacity limits itself to 15-20 seconds of intake and that we can only save 7 “chunks” of information (numbers, letters, images) at a time. So, mini breaks of 3-5 minutes every 15-minute block of teaching are effective ways to ensure more learning and higher retention in the classroom.

This website describes the types of memory and how they work:

This link explains and gives brain breaks ideas:

4. Learning a second language improves cognition, regardless of age. Studies show improvement in logical thinking (great for math, for example), executive function of the brain (which helps with planning and decision making power), and it delays by an up to 5 years the initial symptoms of brain degenerative diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer. 

Watch this TED talk about the benefits of being bilingual:

Check out this infographic:

5. Comparing students’ performance to encourage them to get better is not the best motivation tool. The concept of “growth mindset” is what most contributes to individual growth, that is, comparing current performance versus previous performance of a student and complimenting progress, with feedback and more incentives (constructive criticism) is what really works.

Watch this TED about grit and growth mindset: Dê

Take a look at Carol Dweck’s work:

Very well! Now you already have 10 awesome tips on how to improve your teaching practice based on what Neuroscience has discovered. My next post will provide you with a lesson plan model (framework) taking into account all these concepts!

Did you like these new tools? Leave a comment and share my blog with you student, teacher and educator friends!

Great week and good classes!

Neuroscience of Learning/Language Acquisition – Neurociência da Aprendizagem/Aquisição de Segunda Língua

Neurociência da Aprendizagem – texto em português

Last year I traveled all the way to Israel to meet Neuroscience expert Dr. Avi Karni at the University of Haifa. The reason? Quite simple: 1) my wife was going to present at a conference there; and 2) I had heard about Dr. Karni’s research on a TED talk given by Benny, the Irish Polyglot (check it out here:
Dr. Avi Karni

Imagine my excitement arriving on campus to interview Dr. Karni, who was kind enough to give me a few moments of his busy schedule. We talked about memory, second language acquisition and one of his papers that claimed there was no advantage for children in L2 acquisition when compared to adults! That goes against most teachers’ notion that there’s a “critical period”, as stated by Penfield and Roberts (1959) and popularized by Lenneberg (1967), in which humans can more easily acquire a second language. This period is childhood.

I then started to be even more interested in neuroscience and how we learn. I did a short online course with Dr. Brit Andreatta called Neuroscience of Learning and I designed my English Development Course around the framework of my new discoveries. Today, I just want to share a couple of findings and invite you to think about such an important subject for every teacher, student, and educator.

  1. The critical period hypothesis has been widely refuted in different contexts and by different authors. This means that adults are equally capable of learning (languages or anything else) when compared to kids. In fact, there’s robust evidence showing that they can perform better, given the proper conditions (we’ll talk about them later).

Start with this and move on to Dr. Karni’s text (last link of this post): Singleton, David; Lengyel, Zsolt, eds. (1995). The age factor in second language acquisition: a critical look at the critical period hypothesis. Clevedon [England]: Philadelphia.

  1. The way most of our traditional classes are designed is not so conducive to learning. Research shows that expositive classes, where a teacher talks most of the time and students only listen and take notes, is not good for learning. Varying types of exposure, resources, platforms and students’ participation is what works best.

Check out Sir Ken Robinson’s video on breaking some education paradigms:
And how to flip your classroom:

  1. Learning styles are highly controversial and there’s no hard evidence that they really exist. As mentioned above, it is best to explore the same subject/content using different methods and resources. 

Watch this TED talk to get started:

  1. Too much homework is bad for learning. The adequate amount of time that students should spend on homework should not pass 2 hours daily. As it turns out, being a human and interacting with other humans, mainly friends and family members, are pretty essential for people to develop social skills and rest their minds well enough for learning to happen. What does work is distributed practice or spaced repetition. and this will help you here.

        5. Sitting still is bad for kids’ learning. Every class should have quiet and playful moments. Sitting still for too many minutes, or even hours, goes against children’s nature of moving to learn.

The NY Times published and excellent article on it:

That’s it for now. On this link you’ll be able to find some of the papers I read, more references, and more useful links.

Now, challenge yourself to rethink how you teach using these first principles of neuroscience and let me know how it went!

Penfield, W. , and Roberts, L. , Speech and Brain-Mechanisms (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1959
Lenneberg, EH.Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1967)