Neuroscience and Learning

With advances in brain imaging, neuroscientists can observe what happens in students’ brains in the moment of learning. As a result, neuroscience and education researchers are collaborating in ways that benefit both disciplines and may have far reaching effects in how students are taught.

In this Module in our class Teaching, Learning, and Assessment 2, we are focusing on ISTE Educator Standards 1, Learner, and Standard 2, Leader. I chose to focus on standard 1c, “Stay current with research that supports improved student learning outcomes, including findings from the learning sciences.”  This topic interested me because I am taking an elective on Neuroscience and Pedagogy, and one of the first topics covered was the perpetuation of “neuromyths” about student learning. It has made me want be more cautious in assessing sources of information on brain-based learning research, but at the same time I am excited to understand more about how neuroscience is giving us better information on how we learn.


Neuromyths are incorrect claims of how the brain works, purportedly based on scientific research. Willis (2015) states “These claims (usually with interventions for sale) are based on research that is either not scientifically valid or not supportive of the specific intervention being promoted.” Figure 1 links to a brief Prezi presentation on several common neuromyths.

Figure 1: Neuromyths (Click on “Prezi” in the lower right corner to view full screen.)

Neuromyths Affect Education

In research conducted by the Wellcome Trust in the UK with over a thousand educators, more than 90% of teachers were interested in applying neuroscience research to their teaching, but only a very small percentage used science or academic journals as their source of information. Instead, the majority depended on their organization, other teachers, or an external training provider (Simmonds, 2014). This is understandable, but also somewhat alarming because misinformation is potentially coming from sources that should be based on sound research. Zadina (2015) says “’Brain’ presenters are hired for keynotes and professional development with no experience or credentials in neuroscience” (p. 72).  Figure 2 shows where teachers said they learned of four supposed brain-based approaches for improving student’s academic performance: Learning Styles, Brain Gym, Left/Right Brain, and Biofeedback.

Figure 2: Educator Information Sources for 3 “Neuromyths.” Data: Simmonds, 2014)

Combining Neuroscience and Education

There is reason to be hopeful however that teaching practices can incorporate sound, neuroscience-based methods and techniques. Master’s and PhD programs are being offered in educational neuroscience, and both disciplines are attempting to work more closely together: educators realize they need to consult with researchers and researchers are trying to share their data with the education community in ways that is understandable and applicable (see Resources below). As Zadina (2015) states: “We cannot underestimate the ability of good teachers to take this information and use it wisely as part of their background knowledge and their strategy toolbox for reaching diverse and struggling learners” (p. 72).

Research Methods Better Suited for Children

Neuroresearch has traditionally involved testing animals in labs, making it difficult to apply findings to humans in the classroom. Even more recent imaging techniques used primarily on humans such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are not necessarily practical for testing children. PET uses a radioactive substance and fMRI requires sitting perfectly still in a small enclosure (Churches, Dommett & Devonshire, 2017).

Non-invasive and less restrictive neuroimaging techniques such as EEGs (shown in Figure 3) or MEGs can be used on children to measure communication between neurons while doing an activity such as learning to read (Churches, Dommett & Devonshire, 2017).

Figure 3: “Wired” 2013 by Gordon.
Retrieved from Flickr: Attribution: CC BY-SA 2.0

The Reading Brain

Research conducted at Stanford University led by Bruce McCandliss is an example of how neuroscience findings might lead to effective teaching practices. The study, published in 2015, describes how 16 adults were connected to EEGs to see how the brain responds to different types of reading instruction. Participants were taught a new written language and their brainwaves were observed while they applied either a letter-to-sound instruction method or a whole-word association method.  Researchers discovered that the phonics-based approach increased activity in the area of their brains which is optimal for reading and is more developed in expert readers. This research “…provides some of the first evidence that a specific teaching strategy for reading has direct neural impact” (Wong, 2015). This video shows Bruce McCandliss describing this research as well as how scientists and educators can work together to apply brain research to education.

Software and Imaging Allows for Rapid Iteration

The findings from the Stanford research described above were applied to a study that McCandliss ran in New York City schools. Participants used researcher-designed software that selectively directed the learner’s attention to the sound of words. After twenty sessions, student’s basic reading abilities jumped an entire grade level (Harris & McCandliss, ND). The combination of software and imaging allows researchers to quickly prototype and test different learning strategies in the field, leading to rapid cycles of iteration (Harris & McCandliss – ND).

Exciting Times

The time appears to be right for neuroscience research to affect change in education in practical ways. However there will still be neuromyths that arise from oversimplification of research or spin from organizations who could benefit from the adoption of certain practices or products. Fortunately there are resources that are available to educators to help them navigate this extremely interesting but challenging area of science.

“That’s why I think we should start to see cognitive neuroscientists as collaborators on real-world challenges around human learning. That collaborative space—the emerging field of educational neuroscience—is so exciting. Teachers have powerful tools that can change the activity patterns in their students’ minds in the moment. And by applying those tools over time, they can reshape the brain circuits that support fluent literacy. That’s how neuroscientists and educators can come together to empower students in ways we never could before.”

Harris & McCandliss (ND)

Neuroscience Resources for Educators

Nature Partner Journal: Science of Learning: “npj Science of Learning is an online open access peer-reviewed journal dedicated to publishing papers on all research areas related to how the brain learns; from the molecular level of understanding how the cells in the brain work to understanding how children and adults learn through experience and formal educational practices” (Source: ). The site has a channel with articles targeted toward teachers.

What Works Clearing House: “The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) reviews the existing research on different programs, products, practices, and policies in education. Our goal is to provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions. We focus on the results from high-quality research to answer the question ‘What works in education?’” (Source: This video shows how the site works. You can even sort research based on various characteristics to match that of your school (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Description of how research can be sorted on the What Works Clearinghouse website. Retrieved from: “Powered by the global neuroscience community and overseen by an editorial board of leading neuroscientists from around the world, shares the stories of scientific discovery and the knowledge they reveal. Unraveling the mysteries of the brain has the potential to impact every aspect of human experience and civilization” (Souce: A special section of the website is devoted to teaching techniques based on brain research.

The Dana Foundation “The Dana Foundation is a private philanthropic organization that supports brain research through grants, publications, and educational programs” (Source: Like, they have a dedicated part of their website for educators. Resources Thanks to one of our instructors I found this helpful resource on Neuroscience and Learning, along with Conn McQuinn’s Neuroscience and Learning Pinterest Page. I also really liked this article he wrote on “The Brain Science of Making” in the School Library Journal.

Resources on Learning and the Brain from Edutopia. Written in 2011 but updated in 2016 – a list of articles, videos, and other links for exploring education and neuroscience.


Churches, R., Dommett, E., & Devonshire, I. (2017). Neuroscience in the classroom – principles and practices. Neuroscience for Teachers. Carmarthen, Wales, UK: Crown House Publishing.

Harris, L. & McCandliss, B. (ND). Rewiring the brain for reading. Amplify Blog. Retrieved from:

ISTE Standards for Educators (2017). Retrieved from:

Khazan, O. (2018). The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’. The Atlantic, April 11, 2018.  Retrieved from:

McCandliss, B. (2015).The neuroscience of learning. Retrieved from:

McCandliss, B. (2010). Educational neuroscience: The early years. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America.  Retrieved from:

Resources on Learning and the Brain. (2011; 2016). Edutopia. Retrieved from:

Simmonds, A. (2014). How neuroscience is affecting education: Report of teacher and parent surveys. Wellcome Trust. Retrieved from:

What works clearinghouse. Institute of Education Sciences.

What We Do– Learn about the What Works Clearinghouse (2018). Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved from:

Wong, M. (2015). Brain wave study shows how different teaching methods affect reading development. Research Stories, Stanford School of Education. Retrieved from:

3 thoughts on “Neuroscience and Learning”

  1. Bridget,

    Thanks for reminding me of the power of neuro-science. I was really interested in the neuro-myths, and enjoyed going through your prezi to educate myself. This was a good reminder to think about or reference what neoro-science supports as a teacher, and not to believe everything you hear.

  2. Bridget,
    This is a subject that I am very interested in learning about. Thank you for turning me onto the Neuroscience conference at PLU this summer. Your post was super informative! It was chalk-full of evidence and resources. Conn’s article was a highlight for me as I hadn’t made the connections between neuroscience and makerspaces before. After reading your post, I am very excited and looking forward to learning more.

  3. Bridget,
    Thanks for sharing your post on neuroscience and learning. It is an attractive topic which will bring significant benefit and change to teaching strategies based on solid evidence from researches. You also give us so many useful recourses. Thank you.

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