About 4 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 you that feeling you have deep down that the answer is going to
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
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
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”
Indeed, we can say that teachers have been teaching for millennia and students have
been learning (some better, some worse). But 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 would have a tremendous 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
enormous positive effect on students.
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 right answers and
will not have their thought process interrupted by someone else.
2. 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 or
have understood or reflect on that for 30 seconds or a minute before sharing it with
someone or engaging in another activity.
3. 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
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
4. 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.
5. 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 of 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. You
can also watch my IGTV videos on it here.
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
André Hedlund is a Chevening Scholar from Brazil, MSc in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in the UK, and a pedagogical consultant for National Geographic Learning. He has been an EFL teacher for over 15 years and has worked both as an academic coordinator and a CaMLa (Cambridge and Michigan Language Assessments) examiner at a Brazilian Binational Center. Currently, he is the president of an NGO called Partners of the Americas Goiás and the representative of the BRAZ-
TESOL's Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group in the Midwest. He dreams of transforming education in Brazil.
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,
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London:
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 Review. 63 (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)