Brain Bites

Brain Bites

Applying Brain Research to Online Learning

by Janet Zadina on 02/13/20

You may know how to apply findings from neuroscience and psychology to create a brain-compatible classroom, but what happens when you find you are going to teach online?  How do you create a brain-compatible “classroom” virtually?

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the Florida Virtual School conference where I addressed this very topic.  I will share just a few pointers from that with you here. Let’s look at some key points and see how we can translate them into the virtual classroom.

Stress impairs learning.  In my presentation on this, I share strategies that are done in the classroom to reduce stress.  But online teaching requires that we look at this issue a little differently.  First, your students may have even more stress.  One reason is that they may be in the environment that is stressing them, such as working online from a challenging home environment.  Another special stress for online learners is that they may be afraid of the technology.  In the classroom, they could get help from others, but online they may feel isolated and stressed about how to do the tasks involved in online programs.  Finally, you may have nontraditional students.  Older students, for example, can have anxiety about whether they are too old to learn or whether they can keep up with younger students.

The first thing we can do to reduce stress and increase a feeling of safety, is to provide resources.  At the beginning, let them know where they can get help with technology.  Let them know how they can get tutoring or additional services.  Provide information about mental health services that are available to them.  Set up social support systems so that students can form study groups that can be done online or in person. Finally, reassure them that you are there to help them succeed and that they should let you know if they feel they are struggling or feel overwhelmed (so that you can refer them to the appropriate services).

A strategy that reduces stress that can be done online is to provide choice.  As you look over your syllabus/schedule, homework assignments, and tests ask yourself where you can provide choice.  Can you write more questions for the test and say answer 4 of these 5, for example? Can you give a choice of homework options?  Can you offer them a choice of content, such as one of two readings on the subject? Some can read one and others read the other and then share insights and have an ongoing dialogue.  Does every student need to read the same article?


The brain is a social brain. The brain appears to be wired to learn from other people.  Others can serve as models and some research shows that just watching someone perform something well improves the viewer’s ability to perform that task.  Practice and watching others improves performance.  So how do we provide social needs online?

Thank goodness for videos!  You can video yourself demonstrating something for the students.  As a homework assignment, students may choose to video a demonstration and then you can use that (with their permission) in future classes.  Of course, you can find many videos on line that can explain something better than a text could.  Don’t limit your syllabus to only text assignments.  Whether students read or listen, the material is still processed in the brain.  One way is not better than another.

Build in social activities.  You can still have students work in groups, although virtually.  I do not require a student to participate in groups if they would rather work alone due to social anxiety.  This is especially important online because some students participate in virtual classes due to social anxiety.  But provide the opportunity for those who need it.

Finally, put your friendly, smiling face up front!  When you can’t do Zoom or Facetime, have a picture of yourself in the top corner of pages.  Text or email students individually.  Relationships are important to learning. Online ones can be just as helpful as in person!

A Simple Strategy to Improve Your Mood in Minutes

by Janet Zadina on 02/06/20

Everyone has stress.  Stress can actually be good (eustress) or bad.  We can’t escape it, but we can keep it from becoming chronic or creating burnout.  It is not avoiding stress that is the solution, it is recovering from stress that is critical.

More than 60% of educators say their job is stressful.  Not surprising, since the helping professions (teaching, nursing, counseling) are most susceptible to burnout.  Stress can be contagious between faculty and students.  Since a recent study shows that this may be the most stressed-out generation in recorded history, faculty must protect themselves from the harmful effects of stress.  The best way to do this is to build in recovery on an ongoing basis.

One simple strategy takes only 12 minutes.  In a recent study at Iowa State University, researchers found that “walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection” according to Douglas Gentile. 

Researchers tested three techniques to reduce anxiety and increase well-being:


  1. Loving-kindness: Look at people and silently wish for them to be happy.
  2. Interconnectedness:  look at people and think about how they are connected to each other and how you are connected to them by sharing feelings or goals or similarities.
  3. Downward social comparison:  Looking at people and think how much better off you are than they are.


They also had a control group that just looked at people and noticed their appearance.

Results indicated that those who practiced loving kindness by wishing others well were less anxious and happier. Researchers even looked at personality to see if it would apply more or less to narcissists or meditators, for example.  They found that this strategy worked regardless of personality type.

This strategy can easily be worked into your daily routine.  Designate a specific time, such as on a break between two classes in the same room or as you walk across campus.  For 12 minutes look at the individuals you pass and think silently to each one:  “I wish you happiness”.  You could even do this when students are testing and you focus on each one and wish them well silently. See for yourself if it reduces your stress and makes you happier after a couple of weeks of consistent use. 


by Janet Zadina on 11/14/19

 happier student is more engaged and learns better.  A happier instructor creates a classroom more conducive to learning.  If there were a 3-minute technique that research has shown can rewire your brain or the brain of your students to be happier, would you do it?

There IS a technique that is so brief, so simple, and yet so powerful that it can even change lives.  That is the act of gratitude. 

Writing down 3 things that you are grateful for every day can literally rewire the brain to be happier.  How is that possible?  When you know that you “have” to write 3 gratitudes a day, whether you do it in the morning or evening, you begin to look for things to be grateful for during the day.  It changes what you pay attention to.  Attention drives plasticity.  If you don’t pay attention to it, it doesn’t change the brain, according to recent research.

Unfortunately, although we experience many positive moments during the day, they may not register in the brain. Research says that it takes 20 seconds of paying attention to actually have an effect on the brain. So, when someone pays you a compliment and you brush it off and keep talking, that positive experience did not affect the brain.  But if you sit down and recall it and handwrite it out, you are prolonging the experience.

The effect is two-fold.  Not only will you pay attention to more positive experiences, but those experiences will have a greater effect on the brain. Doing is stronger than thinking. 

Another way you can add more “doing” to your gratitude is by taking pictures.  A colleague creates a Facebook post every evening of her gratitudes.  She has one or more pictures to go along with it.  If there is no picture to represent what she is grateful for that day, she often uses a meme that simply says “Grateful”.  Very effective.

When I taught developmental ed at a community college before becoming a scientist, I had my students write 3 gratitudes every day in the back of their notebook.  Mind you, it wasn’t easy to find things to be grateful for in my student population.  I helped them with ideas.  “Did your legs work when you got up this morning?  Not everyone’s did.”  “Did someone make your day go a little easier yesterday?”  As a result, my classroom felt very warm and bonded and I think this really set the tone.

Start the semester with this practice in your classes and see for yourself how it changes the tone.  I never explained why.  I just asked them to do it and they did. ??

Want to create a happier family? This Thanksgiving when you go around the table and say what you are thankful for, you announce that your family is going to start a new practice of every night at dinner each person telling “one good thing” that happened that day.  Even in the very worst of times, if you look really hard, you can find one good thing. For example, even if you wreck your car, one good thing can be that no one was hurt.  It starts reframing your thoughts and that rewires your brain for positivity.

I have been talking about doing gratitudes in my presentations and I am seeing some very positive feedback from audience members who have implemented this practice. Here are a few examples:

I just wanted you to know how I have been starting my day off with 3 gratitudes and it has changed my brain!  ?? Instead of feeling tired before I even get to work…I think of my three gratitudes on my peaceful drive in and it has made such a difference.  I was getting burned out with work and our business and it really helps me to focus on the beauty in this world.  Thank you.

Marti Myers, EdS, Director Connect 2 Success, Title III Program, Craven Community College, New Bern, North Carolina

I first listened to you as a keynote speaker for Melmac 2 years ago. About 4 years before that I divorced my husband who was emotionally abusive and left with my then 6 year old son and 1 year old daughter. My son had an extremely difficult time. Leaving his Dad, starting a new school, moving in with my parents so instead of 1 person telling him what to do he had three. We had our ups and downs but I was so worried for him. His mantra seemed to be, "my life sucks." I left the session very much interested in trying to focus on gratefulness. So, Tyler and I would start telling each other what we were grateful for every night. I didn't notice much right away and wasn't sure if it had much of an impact on him. I thought he was just humoring me by saying something each night night I was super tired and I thought, we will just skip this for tonight. Tyler, when he realized I was saying good night and leaving said, "Hey mom, we haven't said our gratefulness yet." I had no idea the importance this had for him. I used to refer to him as my "glass is half empty child." I thought based on his personality he just always leaned towards pessimism. I desperately wanted that to change but I didn't know how. This simple act of verbalizing what we are grateful for has dramatically changed the course of his life. I see it in the relationship we now have, how he smiles and laughs, and how he is able to see the beauty in what is around him. Late this fall I heard him talking to himself outside admiring the sunset. "This is just the most incredible sunset I have ever seen. What a beautiful world. " Janet, I am eternally grateful for what you have given us and I just wanted to let you know. Thank you

Diana, guidance counselor from Maine.

Here is what educator  Barbara Ihns did.  

I was in attendance at your workshop on 7/31 in Lake Mary, FL. I’ve read much of and been excited by your book, and ideas presented in and promoted by the workshop have rocked my teaching world. In trying to figure out adding affirmations and gratitude to the spectrum of writing we do, I reached out to a local company that make beautiful books and stationery. They came through with a donation and I have incorporated these into most of my classes.

Here is a letter she wrote about this. It is very moving.

Dear Shelby and Rifle Paper Co.,

This letter has been many weeks in coming, and I apologize for the length as well as the lateness!

Students today seem to have more stresses than ever.  In my own classroom, students are dealing with death, deportation, disease, poverty, and separation from family, alongside other issues typical of high schoolers, including peer pressure and self-esteem.

I was prompted recently by an inspiring lecture to incorporate scientifically proven techniques of stress reduction in my classroom.  The presentation by Dr. Janet Zadina focused on what brain-based research tells us about trauma and its’ effects on learning.  This workshop and her book, Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain, have given me an array of tools to use with my students.

One technique of Dr. Zadina’s to support student wellness is writing affirmations.  I wanted to try this with my 9th through 12th grade ELLs, English Language Learners, who already write daily in colored folders that remain in the classroom.  I wanted the affirmations to be different.  I use a Rifle Paper Co. notebook for my own journaling and know firsthand the benefits of special paper and books for personal writing.  Thus, I turned to Rifle Paper Co. with a request to support this effort by allowing me a discount for pocket notebooks to use for this project.  You, of course, went a huge step further, donating 130 books for my students in a thoughtful variety of five different covers.

Students’ faces lit up when presented with these beautiful ‘libretitas’, and they carefully inspected all five styles before making their choices.  Once given the books, my only requirement was to write their names on an inside cover.  Other than that, it’s simple: “You do you. No one else will read what you write.”  We started with a prompt on gratitude, writing five things we were grateful for, and after a discussion of gratitude, they took off.  A few weeks into it and we are doing this writing most days. I write along with them and have sometimes modeled my thought process, pretty much to show them that anything goes.

The affirmations are part of a larger effort to incorporate techniques for mindfulness and stress-reduction in my classes this year.  Students took a ‘mindfulness pre-test’ last month and will take it again at the end of the school year, which should provide me with more than anecdotal evidence of its benefits.

My students are over 95 % free and reduced lunch, meaning they are in lower socioeconomic levels.  I am certain that these books are their first journals and possibly the first time they’ve used writing explicitly as a therapeutic tool of self-expression. The students’ joy in these books has impacted me greatly, and I am excited to see where affirmations will take them.

I have Rifle Paper Co. to thank for making this segment of my mindfulness curriculum very, very special.  If you like, I will share my results with you in the spring.  It would be my pleasure to provide you with anything further.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.  In gratitude,

                        Barbara Ihns

                        Barbara Ihns, MA TESOL

                        National Board Certified Teacher

                        Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages 9 - 12

                        Lyman Rowing Association Faculty Sponsor

                        Lyman High School

                        Longwood, FL

So whether you do 3 gratitudes or “one good thing”, experiment with the power of gratitude and discover how it can enhance your well-being.  I would love to hear from you about your experiences with it.

Teach your students to TWERC for better learning!

by Janet Zadina on 10/07/19

I will be speaking to about 1000 students in a big auditorium in a few weeks.  As I prepared to write the presentation, I pondered how I could make the takeaways clear and memorable.  Here is an easy way to get students to remember important steps in learning. They do not have to be done in this order.

T = Take Control

You have heard me emphasize that it is important to teach students how their brain learns at the beginning of a semester.  One of the purposes of that is to show students that they can change their brain and their IQ if they take control.  Teach them about mindset and that the harder they work at something, the better they get at it and eventually, due to brain plasticity, they change their cortex and create neural pathways.

W = Wire It

Say it with me – Fire it to wire it!  Based on the Hebbian Law that cells that fire together, wire together, we know that for real learning – long-term potentiation is the scientific term – we must fire it until we wire it, which is a catchy way of saying that we have to keep practicing until we create efficient, fluent neural networks.  Explain plasticity and that the new material must be repeatedly fired, albeit in various ways, until it becomes learned – the brain changed.

E = Express It

The brain has both receptive and expressive pathways and both must be fired and wired.  Reading and listening are just the passive, receptive pathways.  Those are not the strongest for learning.  The expressive pathways, speaking and writing, must also be fired and wired.  These are the pathways they will have to use for the test or for application.  Those are the pathways they should be using for studying.

R = Recall It

There are several types of memory:  declarative, episodic, and procedural.  Declarative is the type of memory involved in most situations in school, but it is the weakest and hardest to remember.  It is being able to state facts.  If students can utilize the episodic memory system, which is how we remember our life and things that happen, by creating a story, that could make a stronger memory.  They can activate procedural memory by physically doing something in steps. 

Students also need to understand the difference between working memory (lasting under a minute) and long-term memory.  They need to learn that information must be actively encoded to move from working memory into long-term memory, but that is more than I can go into in a brief blog.

C= Connect it

Cells that fire together, wire togetherConnect new information to something students already know.  You may call this background, schema, or an existing neural network.  Build a new network or pathway in the brain by building on prior knowledge.  Then when students recall something they already know, they can more easily bring up the new information.

So let’s get students TWERCing in class for better learning!  To inquire about a student presentation or faculty development on this click here


it's aTtitude, not aPtitude: 4 STRATEGIES FOR CHANGE

by Janet Zadina on 02/25/19

Just like one small letter completely changes the meaning of these words, one small change in attitude can have a significant effect. Both educational and scientific research show the effect of attitude on learning and achievement.  I am not using this term in the sense of someone having a “bad attitude” per se, a term commonly associated with belligerence or hostility. I am using it in the sense of how one’s approach or emotional state, can affect learning.  A positive emotion, for example, enhances memory. A belief, or attitude, that one can accomplish a task changes the activation of the brain, increasing effort.  Attitude is an aspect of an overall emotional state and that state greatly affects learning and achievement.

Most educators are aware of the impact of attitude on student effort, achievement, and retention.  However, it is difficult to sustain positive attitudes in classes where students are struggling, such as courses that are difficult for an individual, developmental education, STEM classes, and graduate school. Fortunately, your practices can have an effect on student attitudes.  Creating positive attitudes in all students through your classroom practices can enhance memory, attention, learning, and achievement.

My new keynote explores four ways in which attitude can overrule what might be perceived as aptitude. I will discuss one way and briefly describe the other three, due to constraints of this format.

  1. Use of brain-compatible (or older term brain-based) classroom strategies.  Researching comparisons of traditional teaching methods and brain-compatible methods is a very difficult process, because you are setting up a situation where some students get differential treatment that may be shown to be better.  Nevertheless, there is a growing body of research that indicates that brain-compatible teaching practices improve both knowledge retention and attitude. Researchers compare a group of students receiving conventional (current) instructional styles to a group that receives brain-compatible instruction.  In studies in STEM classes, physics, and medical school courses, the brain-compatible method has been shown to be more effective in terms of learning outcomes and attitudes. We don’t know yet about the effects in other grades or content areas due to the constraints of doing research and giving one set of methods to one group and not another, so we are generalizing from the research that has been done.  Keep in mind that individual aspects of the umbrella term “brain-compatible” have been found through research to be more effective.

Let’s compare conventional practices to brain-compatible practices.  Of course, this is a brief overview. (for a book on brain-compatible practices see Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain.)

Conventional Practices include an emphasis on lecture format, memorization, rote learning, objective testing, note-taking, one-size-fits-all assignments, and teacher-centered instruction. Of course not all of these are bad in themselves, but only if that is the entire mode of instruction.

Brain-Compatible Practices include problem solving, inquiry, creativity, choice, collaboration, active learning, making connections, addressing individual differences, diversifying strategies, positive emotional climate, self-assessment, interactive experiences, reflection, diversified assignments, and learner-centered instruction.Brain-compatible instruction also implies that the instructor has a knowledge of how the brain learns and credible strategies that build on that knowledge.  Therefore, lessons can be created that align with that knowledge.

Aligning your classroom practices with brain-compatible instruction can create a more energized classroom environment that engages students, thus improving attitude.  Struggle and discovery during the learning process can improve self-efficacy and empower students, creating attitude change. Below are three additional factors that affect student attitude in a way that can improve outcomes.

  1. Offer choices wherever possible. One reason that choice is so powerful is that it reduces anxiety, stress, and trauma effects.  Self-efficacy is the quality that differentiated long-term stress effects from temporary ones in a study of hurricane victims.  Choice is also highly motivating. One way to improve attitude and offer choice is a Homework Menu. Instead of one assignment for everyone, have a variety of options for working with the material and letting students choose. All of these won’t work with every assignment.  Of course, each item will need to be described. The grading rubric is “did this student work with this material sufficiently and in such a way as to create learning? If not, then they need to develop their product or choose another option.

  1. Activate the brain’s reward pathway. This pathway is also called the pleasure pathway, the survival pathway, the addiction pathway, and the motivation pathway. One method for activating this pathway and improving attitude is to make the material realistic.  Show students how it can apply to real life or in some way be meaningful. For example, reading literature might not seem practical but if you talk about how you can learn about your own character or others or learn life lessons, it becomes meaningful.  See or Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain.

  2. Reduce anxiety, stress, and trauma. These emotional states impair learning in many ways, most notably in decreasing activation in the frontal cortex, the center of learning and higher order thinking.  A trauma-sensitive classroom can improve attitude, learning, memory, and behavior. This is a keynote or half day workshop. See A DAY OF WELLNESS: REDUCING ANXIETY, STRESS, BURNOUT & TRAUMA. You can find additional information at

Creating a positive classroom environment doesn’t mean unstructured, out-of-control, or undisciplined.  It means that you bring your best attitude to class and are cognizant of the emotional state of your classroom.  Your classroom practices will encourage cooperation and include choice whenever possible. You present material in a way that engages students actively and demonstrate a growth mindset to student.  I am guessing that any educator taking the time to read this is already doing this, but reminders are great to help us keep this in the forefront when things get hectic.

with Dr. Janet Zadina
Copyright 2013 Janet Zadina, Ph.D. All rights reserved
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction

Science and Strategies
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction
Bridging Neuroscience and Education​

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