Part II: Better Than Before: Recapturing Our Students’ Minds, Brains, and Hearts : Brain Bites

Part II: Better Than Before: Recapturing Our Students’ Minds, Brains, and Hearts

by Janet Zadina on 03/22/23

Instructors around the world are telling me that the students are not the same. They are less engaged, less focused, and more prone to behavioral issues. Educators are saying that students can’t follow directions or forget something as soon as they are told. These can be trauma responses.

Last time I talked about engagement. Now I want to look at recapturing from several angles. While this only touches the top of the iceberg in space allowed, you will find some effective strategies to address this.

Better Than Before: Recapturing Our Students’ Minds, Brains, and Hearts

How can we recapture them? My new presentation answers this question and approaches it from every angle: emotional brain, cognitive brain, mind, body, and heart – truly addressing the entire student. I can’t condense a 90-minute presentation into a brief blog, but I can give you some pointers here, choosing the ones requiring the least explanation.

Our goal is to increase engagement, enjoyment, attention, and connection. Each of these increases the other in a synergistic way. It is hard to talk about them individually without mentioning one or more of the others, but let’s try. 

Capturing the emotional brain: 

Enjoyment reduces anxiety, with anxiety going down as enjoyment goes up. This doesn’t mean goofing off. Positive Education means increasing positive emotion, including happiness information and practices, along with traditional skills. One quality that has been shown to increase positive emotion is perceived control. Note the word “perceived.” This means that the student feels that they have some control. We know that a feeling of lack of control increases stress. Students need to consciously recognize that they have some control. One way is to teach several strategies for approaching your material and then discuss with them which strategies they intend to use to take control of the material.

Another way is to reframe anxiety: “Anxiety means that you care how you do and that you have goals. If you are stressing about the test, it means you care. Now take that energy and figure out how you are going to take control of the situation. What is your study plan? What are your strategies? “

Capturing the cognitive brain: 

Attention can be top down or bottom up in the brain. Top down means the brain’s frontal lobes are working well and are focusing attention. However, we have seen that if under stress, the frontal lobes are not working well and it is hard for the student to pay attention. Bottom up means that something captures their attention, such as a loud noise. The reaction is not conscious.

If the student is experiencing enjoyment, their attention has been captured without it having to be forced. If we want to work with top down attention, that means that we are going to help them consciously engage their attention by directing their attention. Paying attention doesn’t mean taking in more; it means taking in less. It is not a floodlight but a spotlight that we want to shine on the material. Be sure to let them set an intention before reading or studying or listening to you and let them know where/when/how to focus their attention.

Capturing the mind/body: We capture them through engagement. Students who are engaged are feeling enjoyment and students who are enjoying class are engaged. One fast way to create engagement is creating a task that is the appropriate level of challenge. If the challenge is too easy, it creates boredom and too hard it creates anxiety. As the student’s skill increases, so should the challenge. However, this does not mean making it more difficult, it means making it more complex. This is a challenge for you!

Capturing the heart: Students who feel a sense of connection to the school, other students, or the instructor have higher achievement. Again, this is synergistic. If you are creating positive emotions in the classroom, you are engaging their hearts. Emotions are contagious. One interesting study showed a reciprocal emotion transmission between teachers and students. The more teacher enjoyment at the beginning of the semester, the higher the student enjoyment at midterm. The higher the student enjoyment at the beginning, the higher the teacher enjoyment. That brings us back to creating a classroom with an enjoyable environment.

Do you see how they all work together – enjoyment, engagement, attention, and connection? I hope you picked up a couple of ideas. Below you will find some questions that you can use as discussion points with colleagues. If you are interested in more science and strategies on this topic, please contact me about securing this presentation for your faculty. It is designed to uplift them and recapture them (they are exhausted from the pandemic, right?) as well as helping them recapture the students.

Here is to a brighter future!

Discussion Questions:

I suggest starting with one of the hardest to implement (as many others can be easily implemented immediately) and then proceed as time permits.

  1. How can you make your content more challenging without making it more difficult?  To keep students engaged, the challenge must increase as the skill increases, but that doesn’t mean more difficult.  It means more challenging by expanding the scope.  It may connect to other material or broaden.  Explore this idea and come up with examples.

  2. How can you increase enjoyment without making it “fun and games” – waste of time. Process the two specific strategies:  perceived control and value appraisal. Discuss those and other strategies with examples from your content area.

  3. How have you attempted to engage their attention in the past and what will you do differently now?

  4. How can you engage their hearts? What do you do to increase connection among students or between you and the students? What things create connection? Evaluate an ice-breaker if you use one to see if it helps students connect (use) or is it just play (don’t use).

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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