How Brain Research Supports Student Academic Teaming


By Dr. David A. Sousa, Ed.D., Author and Consultant in Educational Neuroscience

In recent years, an exciting new area of scientific inquiry has emerged called educational neuroscience. This field of study examines ways in which findings from brain research on how humans learn can have a meaningful impact on educational practice. Researchers have already revealed new insights into areas such as what gets and sustains the brain’s attention, how working and long-term memory work, the influence of emotions on learning, and what kinds of environments are most conducive to acquiring and retaining information and skills. Many of these findings have implications for significantly improving teaching and learning. That is the good news. The bad news is that many of these insights are not getting to classroom teachers and administrators fast enough. As a result, students are not benefiting from instructional strategies that have been updated by the newer brain research.

The brain that does the work is the brain that learns

One of the basic findings from this research is so clear that it needs little explanation: The brain that does the work is the brain that learns. This revelation prompts us to ask the question: Whose brain is working the hardest in most classrooms? Despite initiatives such as cooperative learning, personalized learning, social and emotional learning, project-based learning, and the like, much of the cerebral workload in these approaches still remains with the teacher. Yet the research is telling us that it is the students’ brains which should be doing most of the cerebral processing for learning and remembering to successfully occur. To accomplish this, we need to embrace an approach that significantly shifts the prevailing teacher-centered instructional model to a predominantly student-centered one. Students need to be doing much more of the thinking and interacting with their new learning than ever before.

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Although some of the current initiatives do involve student participation, the guidelines for how they participate vary widely. Too often, the student discussions are teacher-scripted, limiting how far they can thoughtfully process the new learning, and leading to mixed and unpredictable outcomes. When reviewing brain research on learning, we discover that an instructional approach whereby teachers turn over new learning tasks to student teams that are free to fully discuss how to solve the task can significantly improve student learning. We now have reliable evidence and data from elementary and secondary classrooms showing that such academic teaming raises student interest, motivation, and achievement.

Why are academic teams so effective?  Some research findings are revealing answers:

  • Studies on teams found that the more team members collaborated with each other during problem solving, the more their brain waves became synchronized. Furthermore, those team members whose brain waves began to synchronize with each other were able to make quicker decisions and solve a problem more efficiently than those members whose brain waves did not synchronize.  
  • Memory research finds that talk is one of the most powerful memory devices because adding the auditory modality increases the number of brain regions processing the new learning. Student-led academic teaming encourages participants to share their ideas verbally with other team members. Discussing what one is learning is called the production effect, and studies have shown that it is a significant aid to long-term memory.
  • Studies have shown that emotions enhance long-term memory. Research in neuroscience has clearly found that social and emotional growth have a significant impact on one’s cognitive development. Student-led academic teaming supports social-emotional growth, especially by building tolerance for differing views. As the team works over time, the variance among individual opinions and stages of social and emotional development tend to migrate toward a group decision that is more rational than the decision of any individual.
  • Research studies have revealed that the average adolescent spends only a few seconds with a website on their ever-present digital device to determine whether to stay or move on. This individual’s brain is being trained to decide in just a few seconds whether the information on a website will capture and sustain the viewer’s attention. In academic teams, students spend considerable time discussing and analyzing their new learning face-to-face. They focus on a deeper understanding and the application of their learning to real-world situations. This provides the practice that young people need to develop sustained attention and to remember what they have learned.

In summary, the preliminary results from schools currently using student academic teams are very promising, especially in closing the achievement gaps among diverse groups. Granted, it takes a deep commitment to provide the professional development that allows the gradual shift from teacher-centered to student-centered classrooms. However, teachers who have made the shift report greater student achievement as well as significant improvements in student behavior and motivation. Most importantly, these teachers remarked that when fully implemented, they feel less stressed and find they have time for developing more academically rigorous challenges for their students, and for more thoroughly monitoring their progress. Student academic teaming is an excellent example of how findings from educational neuroscience can be used to develop an instructional model that can help students be more successful learners than perhaps ever before.