Daniela Kaufer’s Talk
Research Background
Teaching Practice
Further Reading On Line

Daniela Kaufer, “What Can Neuroscience Research Teach Us about Teaching?”

In her talk for the How Students Learn project, Professor Kaufer describes “Mind, Brain, and Education” or MBE, a developing subfield within neuroscience that attempts to link research with teaching. MBE researchers consider how to take advantage of the natural human attention span, how to use studies about memory systems to inform lesson planning, and how to use research on the role of emotions in learning. Kaufer’s talk focuses on neurobiological components of learning, including the affective filter hypothesis (how we feel affects how we learn), the role of stress in learning (moderate stress is beneficial for learning, while mild and extreme stress are detrimental to it), neuroplasticity (the ability of nerve cells in the brain, or neurons, to change), and neurogenesis (the development of new neurons). She concludes by explaining some of her own techniques for fostering active learning in the classroom in light of the most current research.

Watch a video or read a summary of this talk

Research Background

Neuroscience fundamentals:

Adequate sleep, good nutrition, and regular exercise encourage neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change in response to stimuli) and neurogenesis (the development of new nerve cells in the brain) and keep cortisol and dopamine (stress and happiness hormones, respectively) at appropriate levels. Thus, these common-sense healthy lifestyle choices support the neurobiology of learning.

Cognitive functions associated with the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, such as understanding and remembering, are associated with the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for memory and spatial awareness). The higher-level cognitive functions of Bloom’s taxonomy, such as creating, evaluating, analyzing, and applying, involve the cortical areas responsible for decision-making, association, and motivation. More complex thought processes are more beneficial for learning because they involve a greater number of neural connections and more neurological cross-talk. Active learning takes advantage of this cross-talk, stimulating a variety of areas of the brain and promoting memory.

Stress and performance are related in an “inverted U curve.” Moderate levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) tend to correlate with the highest performance on tasks of any type. When cortisol is too low or too high, performance declines. We can therefore conclude that moderate stress is beneficial for learning, while mild and extreme stress are detrimental to learning. However, the production of cortisol in response to different events varies significantly among individuals; what constitutes “moderate stress” for one person might constitute mild or extreme stress for another.

Key texts:

Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne and Uta Frith. The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

Kraemer, David J.M., Lauren M. Rosenberg, and Sharon L. Thompson-Schill. “The Neural Correlates of Visual and Verbal Cognitive Styles.” Journal of Neuroscience 29.12 (March 25, 2009): 3792–3798.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, Tracey. Mind, Brain, and Education Science: A Comprehensive Guide to the New Brain-Based Teaching. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Teaching Practice

Key learning principles:

  • Adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise encourage robust learning.
  • Active learning takes advantage of processes that stimulate the brain and promote memory.
  • Moderate stress is beneficial for learning, while mild and extreme stress are detrimental to learning.

Inspired by this talk:

Activities for the college classroom designed and implemented by members of the How Students Learn Working Group, Spring 2011. See what’s already under way at UC Berkeley to address the learning principles described in Daniela Kaufer’s talk.

Instructor(s) Activity Course(s)
Margaretta Lovell
Diana Greenwold, GSI
Mid-Term Exam Review Session History of Art 185A
Colleen Lewis, GSI Integrating Clicker Questions into Lecture Computer Science 61A
Steven Boggs Teaching Physics for the 21st Century Physics C10

Activities to try:

Resources for post-secondary instructors looking to integrate the learning principles Professor Kaufer described. Find ways to incorporate active learning and moderate stress in your own classroom.

Active Learning Techniques from the UC Berkeley GSI Teaching & Resource Center Teaching Guide

Some Basic Active Learning Strategies from the University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning

Further Reading On Line

These articles discuss challenges to using active learning techniques in the classroom — general challenges, challenges for new instructors, such as GSIs, and challenges related to the large lecture course format. Some articles may require access through the UC Berkeley library or proxy server.

Winter, Dale, et al. “Novice Instructors and Student-Centered Instruction: Identifying and Addressing Obstacles to Learning in the College Science Laboratory.” The Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 2.1 (2001): 14–42.

Walker, J. D., et al. “A Delicate Balance: Integrating Active Learning Into a Large Lecture Course.” CBE Life Sciences Education 7.4 (Winter 2008): 361–367.

Felder, Richard M. and Rebecca Brent. “Navigating the Bumpy Road to Student-Centered Instruction.” Abridged version originally published in College Teaching 44 (1996): 43–47.