Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn by Oakley, Rogowsky, and Sejnowski

7. Building Community Through Habits

  • Effective teachers have classrooms the run like clockwork. In order for this to happen, you have to teach students the procedures you want from day one so that they become habits. Once your desired habits are at the procedural level students will automatically do them. Tips here include contacting students and parents before school starts so they know what to expect, sharing some personal information about yourself, and not letting friends sit next to each other. Have one on one meetings with students who can’t follow procedures or who misbehave. This should help build relationships. Unexpected rewards help the brain make neural links effectively.

8. Linking Learners: The Power of Collaborative Learning

  • Unlike chronic stress, transient stress experienced while learning generally isn’t harmful and can improve cognition. It releases hormones that enhance the formation of connections. The social buffering that happens in groups can help reduce stress. For this to happen group members need to be supportive. It helps if you get to know your students to a degree before you put them in groups. Do not let them select their own groups. Groups can work on multiple problems/projects, but they shouldn’t last all year.
  • Start by teaching them how to work in a group. Appendix A contains “How to Manage Yourself in a Collaborative Team” that students should read and discuss prior to group work. It helps if each student has a role. You may also have to teach social skills. At the end of a group effort, students should reflect on their effort and the group’s success. The authors suggest groups of three or four. Ask for confidential feedback that includes what worked, what didn’t work, and how can we improve. They suggest a type of brainstorming where everyone writes their own ideas down before they share them with the group.

9. Online Teaching with Personality and Flair

  • Teaching practices like direct instruction, retrieval practice, and active learning all work well online. Synchronous online classes involve teachers teaching online while students participate at the same time. The pandemic spawned a lot of synchronous Zoom classes. These classes could be considered real-time or live. The alternative is asynchronous online learning where the teacher prepares online content that the students can engage with at any time. Both types of learning should feature a lot of seeing and hearing at the same time. They also require some kind of communications system for sending and collecting assignments, quizzes, and other messages. If your school doesn’t have a specialized system for this you can always resort to using email.
  • You want to make sure that your sound is of good quality and that you and your background are well lit. Consider purchasing a better microphone than your laptop has and you may need to get an extra floor lamp or three. There are good lighting tips here. Speak with a vivid, clear voice and use expressive body language. For real-time classes be sure to use chat options and breakout rooms. You can also set up polls in advance. Include occasional breaks so students can move around a bit.
  • You should have some kind of LMS system where students can access videos, quizzes, documents, and discussion forums that you post. You can use purchased or free online videos, but you should do at least some of your own. You can use screen capture software to record a lesson and if you do try to put your taking face in a corner of the screen. You can also put your smartphone on a tripod and press record. For direct instruction keep the videos on the short side. You can, however, post recordings of an entire class. These are good for students who miss classes or who need to review. Your first videos may not be great, but your students will be happy to see you and you will get better with experience. Allow for online collaboration, include humor if you can, and use videos as homework. (This is also known as flipped teaching.) Finally, challenge your students to make videos.

10. Charting Your Course to the Finish Line: The Power of Lesson Plans

  • At the heart of successful teaching is solid planning. The best teachers are probably the best planners. Begin with the final destination in mind so students know where they are going. Start with the standards and translate them to objectives, which state what students will know, understand, and be able to do. Verbs communicate expectations. Try making focus questions from your objectives and share them with the students. Assessments should give you proof that students have reached the objective. Formative assessments promote recall practice and shouldn’t be graded.
  • Have a routine so that students get to work as soon as they enter the room. (bell ringer) Model excitement for the content, borrow from colleagues, and use short video clips. Connect to the real world, try to add humor, and use quick experiments. Tap into prior knowledge, think out loud to make your thinking visible, but don’t talk too much. You will ask a lot of questions so be sure to plan most of them. Students should be taking notes and creating their own graphic organizers. As you walk around, look at their notes. Your goal is to promote student-directed learning as much as possible.
  • Pay attention to closure. Recap the lesson and preview what’s next. If you use exit tickets read them as they are produced. You may want to place them on the wall. (sticky notes) Have students self-assess at some point and be sure to review and revise your plans. There are lots of specific tips here that make this book a good value.

The Authors

  • Barbara Oakley, PhD, is the author of A Mind for Nubers and a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Her research involves bioengineering with an emphasis on neuroscience and cognitive psychology. She is an expert on learning and on creating high-quality online materials for MOOCs. With Terrence Sejnowski she teachers one of the most popular MOOCs, “Learning How to Learn.” Watch her TED Talk here.Her website is barbaraoakley.com/li>
  • Beth Rogowsky, EdD, is a professor of education at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. She has fourteen years of experience teaching English Language Arts to middle schoolers in rural and urban schools. Her doctorate is in educational leadership and she has studied cognitive neuroscience. Her research focuses on translational neuroeducation with an emphasis on language, literacy, and debunking myths such as learning styles.
  • Terrence Sejnowski, PhD, is the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where he directs the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory. He has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering. You can reach hi on Twitter @sejnowski.
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