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What Is Brain-Based Learning?

May 26, 2021

In the past two decades, neuroscience research has proven the traditional classroom isn’t as stimulating for student learning as it could be. Enter brain-based learning, an innovative approach to education based on scientific research. It involves a teaching method that limits lectures and encourages exercise breaks, team learning, and peer teaching. Brain-based learning centers around neuroplasticity, or the remapping of the brain’s connections when learning new concepts.

Brain-Based Learning: Definition, History, and Principles

Brain-based learning uses neuroscience to create an informed curriculum and lesson design. The goal? Speedy and efficient learning. The research that informs this method centers around the brain’s ability to change, remap, and reorganize itself while someone is learning new information, according to Education Reform. This ability is influenced by things like exercise, diet, and stress level. A person’s emotional state also impacts their learning ability.

When information is presented in effective ways, the brain is able to function better, its resilience is increased, and its overall working intelligence is improved. Research has also shown that the brain physically changes while learning. Thus, the more new skills are practiced, the easier learning becomes.

Using this research as a springboard, teachers implement brain-based learning principles in the classroom. They specifically focus on reducing stress, effectively delivering material, increasing students’ movement, and building in opportunities to practice. While the principles remain the same no matter the age of a student, people do begin to learn differently as they mature. So, the delivery methods of these principles adapt accordingly.

History of Brain-Based Learning

Neurological research gained momentum in the 1990s. Up until this point little was known about neural pathways, and the left and right brain theory, introduced in the 1960s, was decades old. From the 1990s up to the present day, scientists have discovered more about the brain than in all other centuries combined, according to the Global Digital Citizen Foundation.

In 1994, Geoffrey Caine and Renate Nummela Caine’s research concluded that students had increased retention and understanding of topics when in a brain-based teaching environment. Since then, brain-based learning has become a more common practice in schools.


The core principles of brain-based learning follow. Each principle lays out a formula for better retention and learning among students.

Health and Exercise

The more active and engaged students are physically, the better their learning outcomes. This requires more than a midday recess or a walk between classes. Allowing students to take walking breaks during lessons and throughout the day, for example, revitalizes students, increases their attention span, and better prepares them to retain information.

Positive Emotions

The happier students are, the more they are willing to learn and think effectively. Affirmations from the teacher are one way to raise student self-esteem.

Group Work

Working in teams with classmates allows students to learn from one another. This helps them retain information they may not have accepted or understood from the teacher.

Peer Teaching

When students teach materials to their peers, it helps them retain that same information. This can be done in small groups or through presentations.


Learning through repetition and trial and error is more effective than simple memorization. Students will gain a better understanding of the subject through practice, rather than just memorizing the details.

Limited Lectures

Only 5 to 10 percent of information is retained during a lecture, according to Classcraft. Making lessons largely discussion-based promotes student learning.

Meaningful Information

Students are more likely to remember information if they are engaged with the lesson. By applying the material to their lives, students will find it meaningful. For example, a lesson on economics could be related to smartphone ownership.

Written and Verbal Information

Having students both write and verbalize information will help move it from their short-term memory to their long-term memory.


Catching students’ attention through humor, movement, or games stimulates their brains’ emotional center. In turn, this increases students’ engagement and processing of information.

Less Stress

Stress chemically changes the brain. In a calm classroom environment, students have the opportunity to perform at higher levels.

Benefits of Brain-Based Learning

The benefits of brain-based learning follow the principles. These include:

  • Health. This approach promotes health and exercise, boosting the overall fitness and wellness of students.
  • Better psyches. Positive affirmations and limited criticism helps students feel good about themselves and view themselves in a positive manner.
  • Cooperation. The more group work students do, the more they learn how to cooperate and compromise.
  • Improved memory. Overall, brain-based learning helps students build their memories and retention. The peer-teaching principle, in particular, leads to increased memorization and understanding of information.

Teachers experience another major benefit from this approach: more than one strategy works. This teaching and learning style isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience. Teachers can apply multiple strategies following the principles, making it likely they will experience results with their students.

Classroom Application

As it has multiple strategies, brain-based learning also has many classroom applications. For example, both verbal and written information can be included in lessons, which boosts retention. Hands-on activities can also be created, such as providing students with physical clocks to learn time.

Another application is modeling assignments on real-world challenges students experience. For example, when teaching about percentages, a shopping activity can be set up. Each item could be on sale and the student challenged to calculate the sale price before they can be rewarded with it. This activity can also be done in groups where they have a budget to follow. This helps them learn problem solving and critical thinking all in one activity, moving outside the lecture and into practical applications of the lesson.

It’s important to note that not all strategies work for all students. Regularly trying new approaches and working through trial and error is the best way to begin implementing brain-based learning in the classroom.

Grow as a Teacher at American University

Brain-based learning is just one innovative approach teachers use today. To develop more techniques and grow as a teacher, American University’s online Master of Arts in Teaching program prepares students to be progressive minded and prepared. Through courses like Effective Teaching for Diverse Students, American University students cultivate skills to design cutting-edge curriculums. Grow your knowledge and passion for teaching at American University.