Have you ever started using an appliance or device without reading the instruction manual?
Perhaps, later, you discovered you weren’t using the device properly, or that it had functionalities you didn’t even know about.
Students who don’t know how their brains work, and therefore how to best use their brains in learning, are basically in the same boat.
Because they don’t have the instruction manual for how the brain works, they aren’t able to tap into their brain’s full potential.
Judy Willis, who worked as a neurologist for 20 years before becoming a teacher to 5th and 7th graders, writes for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD):
“When I began incorporating basic instruction about the brain into my classes and teaching simple activities to improve brain processing, students not only became more engaged and confident, but they also began changing their study practices in a way that paid off in high achievement.”
A study published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education also adds “inducing a growth mindset by teaching neuroplasticity has overall positive effect on motivation, achievement and brain activity.”
Multiple studies show that students who have a better understanding of how their brains work get better grades than those that don’t – because they have that instruction manual about how to run their brains to their advantage!
Before getting into how teaching about neuroplasticity improves grades, let’s take a look at what neuroplasticity means.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Whenever you learn something new, your neurons or brain cells create connections or associations to store this new information.
The more you review this information and practice it, the stronger your memory of it becomes, because the associated neurons keep firing and getting very good at sorting through the information.
Sportspeople, singers, dancers – they all practice for hours to perfect their skills, which is why they can perform so well when they’re on the court or on stage.
This is possible because of neuroplasticity.
The more new plays they learn, the more new techniques they incorporate, and the more they practice their skill sets, their brains change and grow to adapt this knowledge.
The same thing applies to learning in the classroom as well.
The more new information you learn, and work hard to practice and review, the better, faster and more efficient your brain is going to become at retaining, recalling and applying all this information.
So, how does knowing about neuroplasticity improve grades?
5 Ways Teaching About Neuroplasticity Improves Grades
1. Students are Empowered in Their Learning
It provides them with that instruction manual that helps them figure out not only how their brains work, but also how to ensure they work at their best, and how to look after them.
If you cram and cram for hours and stay up all night studying but can’t remember everything you worked so hard to learn, neuroplasticity shows you what you were doing wrong and how to do it right.
According to neuroscience, your brain has a limited working memory and an almost unlimited long-term memory.
The key to successful learning is to convert your working memory into your long-term memory.
As you learn something, you’re using your working memory – your hippocampus is storing this incoming information, waiting for it to associate with existing bits of knowledge in your brain.
This is part of the process of creating long-term memories – associating new knowledge to existing knowledge, like constructing a building, starting with the foundation and going brick by brick.
But if you keep pouring in new information, your working memory surpasses its capacity – like a glass of water overflowing, it ends up losing what you were trying to learn.
On the other hand, just a short break of 5 minutes helps your working memory return to full working capacity.
By knowing this, students can then schedule study sessions and breaks better and in a more brain-friendly manner.
Instead of studying for several hours and losing a lot of it because their brains are overwhelmed with the information, they can space out their learning and therefore retain a lot more.
Another core strategy they’ll learn about is the importance of practice.
The more you review, and the more you practice retrieving what you’ve already learned, the more the neurons involved in this learning will activate.
And just like baseball players getting better at the game or singers getting better at hitting all the notes perfectly with practice, your ability to access, apply and process that information improves with review.
When students know why they benefit from practice, they’ll be a lot more motivated to do it because it’s not just a tiresome thing they were told to do – they know that reviewing helps their brains grow!
And possessing all these strategies isn’t the only way teaching about neuroplasticity empowers students, as you’ll see in my next point.
2. Boost Confidence in At-Risk Students
Willer says, “Explaining how the brain works is especially important for students who believe they are “not smart” and that nothing they can do can change that.”
When students know that their brains have endless learning potential, and that it’s not a question of being smart but rather knowing the strategies to make the best use of it, it can change their lives.
They can approach learning knowing that by using a brain-based formula that is proven by science, they will succeed.
This boosts their confidence and can even awaken a love in them for learning.
By knowing how their brains work, they feel more in control of their learning and their lives, and it reduces the anxieties, stress and overwhelm they might experience otherwise when they struggle to learn.
A 2018 study even points out that learning about neuroplasticity benefits at-risk students in particular, helping them boost up their grades – all because they know how their brains learn best!
3. Know How to Stay Motivated for Learning
All students battle motivation – or a lack of it – when learning.
But learning about neuroplasticity and how the brain works can help students figure out how to get motivation and focus on demand!
Motivation is regulated by the brain’s mesolimbic pathway – when you accomplish something, for example, using your brain-based strategies to solve a math problem successfully, it stimulates this pathway.
In turn, the neurotransmitter dopamine starts circulating your system – this is a chemical messenger which makes you experience that sense of reward and satisfaction after accomplishing something.
Because this sensation is so pleasurable, your brain starts to release dopamine in anticipation of the sense of reward when you continue working on your math problems.
Even if you get an equation wrong, because your brain is expecting rewards and the dopamine neurons are active, you’ll want to continue working on your sums, redoing problems you got wrong.
This is the basis for how motivation occurs – through dopamine.
Dopamine also keeps you focused and clear-headed, better able to focus on your learning.
And the great news is your dopamine neurons get activated by following many of the same brain-based learning strategies you encounter through neuroplasticity.
When you break tasks or study sessions down into smaller activities and to-do lists, every time you complete a session or task, your dopamine levels spike.
This keeps you motivated to continue learning, compared to trying to get through three straight hours of studying or completing a chapter in one sitting, and feeling discouraged when you can’t recall as much as you wish to.
When you successfully recall something you learned, the resulting sense of accomplishment also sparks up the mesolimbic or reward pathways of your brain, and thus, keeps you motivated to keep going!
4. Maintain a Better Lifestyle
Reducing refined foods like refined sugar, trans fats, refined carbs, fried foods etc., and incorporating brain-boosting foods like fatty fish, blueberries, walnuts, leafy greens etc. into your diet can boost dopamine.
While the former food group might give you a temporary high of pleasure and enjoyment, because of a short-term spike of dopamine, they’re followed by a long-term crash.
You end up feeling tired, irritable, sluggish, unfocused, and unable to learn.
Overconsuming these types of foods can also lead to a multitude of health complications, like heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and more.
The short-term dopamine high and the expectation that you’d experience it again might have you reaching again and again for a candy bar or some fries, but knowing how this harms you can help you consciously choose against damaging your brain and body in this manner.
This is all the more imperative because this type of dopamine spike is associated with harmful addictive behaviors.
On the other hand, incorporating brain-enhancing foods not only sharpens up your ability to learn and focus, but also helps improve your overall health and well-being.
By learning about the brain, you also realize the importance of things like sleep and exercise.
In fact, sleep is a critical part of creating long-term memory.
When you sleep, your hippocampus and neocortex work together to review what you learned during the day, create associations with what you already know, and cement it into your long-term memory.
If you tried to pull an all-nighter for an exam and realized that you couldn’t remember what you learned, this is why – your brain didn’t get its daily opportunity to solidify the information while you rested.
Getting enough rest is also essential to making sure you’re able to concentrate, and are clear-headed and calm to tackle the next day’s learning.
When you get enough high-quality sleep, your brain wakes up in an alpha state, one of the four brain wave states.
In this state, you are both relaxed and alert; your brain is far more receptive to new information.
In other words, you need enough sleep for better learning and memory, and once students understand how and why, they can make meaningful lifestyle choices to improve their learning and overall wellbeing.
The same applies to making the choice to get enough exercise.
Even a quick jog or a short brisk walk around the block gets oxygenated blood circulating to your brain, nourishing those hardworking neurons and helping them work faster and more efficiently.
And yes – exercise helps release dopamine too!
5. Reduce or Get Rid of Bad Habits
When you review and practice, the neural pathways storing this knowledge stay highly active, efficient and strong.
On the other hand, when neural pathways are associated to rarely used or unused knowledge, your brain removes these pathways because it deems them unnecessary.
This is why you might forget something you learned earlier that day if you didn’t review it, or why you forget something you didn’t revisit for a long time.
While forgetting what you actually want to remember is a bad thing, losing the neural pathways associated to poor habits is a good thing.
When you consciously replace habits like reading fixations or saccades, going back repeatedly to reread words (regression), or mouthing the words when you read (sub-vocalization), with more brain-friendly reading strategies, the neural connections associated with those habits begin to wither away.
Overtime, you will completely replace those poorer habits with your newer, more efficient and more effective learning strategies.
Ultimately, teaching about neuroplasticity improves grades because they provide students with the tools and knowledge they need to actively engage with how they learn.
Knowing how their brains learn helps them make sound decisions about what they should or should not do to improve their own learning.
It helps them feel confident in any new learning situation and be completely in control of their learning success.
And now I want to hear from you! Now that you know the 5 ways teaching about neuroplasticity improves grades, is this something you’re going to try out yourself?
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, such as Total Recall Learning™.
Her superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. Pat is the best-selling author of more than 15 books and is also a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!