5 Teaching Strategies To Keep Students From Turning Off Their Brains

5-strategies-for-keeping-students-from-turning-off-their-brains5 Teaching Strategies To Keep Students From Turning Off Their Brains

by Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed., radteach.com

Dr. Judy Willis–resident brain investigator at Edutopia and TeachThought–is a neurologist turned educator whose work (much of which can be found on her own blog, radteach.com) focuses on the brain–how it works, and how teachers can respond.

Her video below, produced by our friends at Edutopia, sees Dr. Willis talking about how boredom and fear cause students to literally switch their brains off. We extracted a few takeaways below, but the video is only about 10 minutes long, and is worth a watch.

Have questions or feedback? You can find her on twitter. Yay for social media!

5 Teaching Strategies To Keep Students From Turning Off Their Brains

1. Use indirect signals rather than “telling”

As an example, you might use different color font, ink, or highlighter to indicate content priority rather than saying “This is super important and will be on the test.”

2. Make sure all students respond in some way

They can attempt an answer, ask a question of their own, or make some related prediction or evaluation. They can also respond to a non-content related question from the teacher (e.g., “Where would you start answering this question? What information would you need to form an intelligible response?)

Predictions and responses force the brain to engage at least on some level. That, or they make it clear there is zero engagement to begin with.

3. Protect students from fear of mistakes or failure

This can happen in a number of ways, including making student practice responses (rather than just “test” answers) private. To accomplish this, you can use individual whiteboards, or even twitter, texts, etc.

Fear is a powerful “demotivator.” Put students in situations where they believe they can be successful.

4. Resist placing students “on the spot” unless responding “on the spot” is what you’re assessing

You might fee like you’re preparing students for the “real world” by asking them to stand and articulate a complex response–and you might be right. But what you’re also assessing is simply their ability to resist fight or flight response.

5. Promote curiosity not as a thing, but the thing

Strategies that make students curious–such as breaking routines–is important to not only keep students engaged, but to allow them to “activate” their brains. Research about the relationship between curiosity and learning isn’t entirely clear, but connection is. Curiosity activates background knowledge, promotes comfort and activity, engages the brain, helps students persist in the face of failure, and countless other desirable academic behaviors.

For further reading on curiosity, you can find our post on learning strategies that make students curious.

5 Teaching Strategies To Keep Students From Turning Off Their Brains


  • This is a lovely article. Thank you. Usually I make sure to mix it up a bit in my class. For example, in math class when the kids attention is dwindling, I insert a group game or sometimes give them time off to play in related websites like http://www.mathblaster.com or similar educational games, depending on the subject. But I suppose a wholesome teaching technique goes deeper than just activities. Can’t wait to incorporate this advice to my lesson plans! Thank you again!

  • But in Texas, teachers may hear:

    “What do you need white boards for in social studies? See if you can borrow some from math guys.”

    “Accountable talk means you have to put the student on the spot.”

    “If you don’t put them on the spot, how can you tell they’ve learned the material?”

    “Color printer is ONLY for administrator use, for important stuff — like agendas for faculty meetings and invitations to monthly birthday party.”

    “If you break routine, students won’t know what to expect.”

    So be prepared to take flak, if you’re doing your job.

    (No, I didn’t say “don’t do it.” I said, “be prepared to meet opposition.”)

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