Knowing a bit about how the brain works can help you design activities to engage students and help them retain critical information
In Marzano Center’s previous post on transcontextual thinking activities, we showed how such activities can boost student engagement and attention levels (and even get students laughing). So, how does increased attention lead to improved memory? A recent groundbreaking study from MIT neuroscientists showed that increased attention causes the nucleus basilis to release a flood of acetylcholine that influences astrocyte cells. This flood of acetylcholine affects astrocytes, and it is this flood of acetylcholine and interaction with astrocytes that leads to a more solid long-term memory of the stimulus. This MIT study has solved a medical mystery about the role of astrocytes that has endured for more than 150 years. When the brain is in an attentive state, the astrocytes trigger neurons in the visual cortex, essentially alerting it that something important is going on in the visual field worth remembering.
One of the ways teachers can use this information is to make certain that critical information is presented during periods of increased attention. For example, you could pair a transcontextual thinking activity with critical information—but the key would be to present the critical information within the transcontextual thinking activity.
For example, let’s say a biology teacher was introducing students to the parts of a cell—mitochondria, ribosomes, nucleolus, etc. Once the students have been exposed to a sufficient range of facts about the cell, the teacher is now ready to engage the students in a transcontextual thinking activity:
“Which 3 parts of the cell would you like to be friends with? Which 3 parts would you have a hard time getting along with?”
The teacher would have a poster/projection of a cell for the students to use as a visual reference while answering the transcontextual questions. In response to the transcontextual activity, many of the students would begin laughing—and, due to the activity, most or all regions of the brain would now be asynchronously stimulated and engaged. This increased attention would flood the students’ visual cortex with acetylcholine-fueled astrocytes, thus causing the brain to remember far more of the visual field than in a non-attentive—or even a less-attentive—state.
Have you used strategies like this to boost student attention and memory retention? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.