Monthly Archives: August 2020

What should teachers know about the brain? (creative commons)

When I taught psychology to high school students, I LOVED teaching them about the brain. I loved sharing the amazing details about this most amazing object in the universe that they carry around with them in their skulls. I loved sharing brain research with them – students often told me that the time we spent talking about Gazzaniga and the split-brain patients were a highlight of the class. I love reading about contemporary brain research (although I often suspect that I don’t have the background knowledge needed to evaluate some of the claims in the sources I’m reading). 

Given my love of brain research and my love of teaching, I am also interested in a related topic: What should teachers know about the brain? So far, what I’m learning surprises me a bit. 

Daniel Willingham and David Daniel tackle this question head on in one of their “The Daniels” video blogs (which are all a lot of fun, by the way. Daniel Willingham and David Daniel. Get it?) In this short video, they effectively discuss a 2013 Educational Researcher article called “Infusing Neuroscience into Teacher Professional development.” The Daniels conclude that the article doesn’t have much to say about whether brain research is truly “actionable” by teachers. Teachers can definitely learn about brain research, but does it actually help teachers make decisions? They conclude that the answer (so far) is no. For example, knowing that speech is controlled by two specific areas in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex is fascinating for all sorts of reasons (check out that Gazziniga split-brain research I mentioned earlier!) , but it doesn’t help me decide how to teach reading, or speech, or anything else.

Andrew Watson tackles a similar question in his great ResearchEd video “Won’t get Fooled Again.” About 17 minutes into the video, he describes a scenario in which a presenter helps teachers understand neural anatomy and the process of neural transmission (another one of my favorite topics in my high school psychology class. We even took a field trip to the bathroom!) After the fictional staff development is over, he wonders what would happen if one of the teachers asked: “Now that I know some information about the brain, how should I use that information to make teaching decisions?” The answer is: you can’t. There are all sorts of great reasons to learn about neural anatomy and function, but this knowledge doesn’t help us make teaching decisions.

And I was excited when I received my “Learning and the Brain” issue of Educational Leadership. I read through the articles eagerly, and gradually got more and more… perplexed. The articles were well written and researched, and I enjoyed learning some recent research about the brain. But I didn’t find discussions of how the brain research directly applied to teaching decisions (or when they did, the application suggestions were based on memory/cognitive/motivation research, not specifically brain research). The last two articles (Education’s Research Problem and Retrieval Practice: A Power Tool for Lasting Learning were very practical and useful, but the advice from those authors was not based on brain research).

So what should teachers know about the brain? Right now, my answer is “As much as they are interested in, but what you learn won’t be your most powerful tool for making teaching decisions.” Learning science/memory/cognition research is much more immediately applicable to decisions about teaching and learning (for example, see Stephen Chew’s excellent “Learning in Pandemic times” video.) 

BUT maybe this won’t be true forever! I got to talk (via Twitter) with a neuro/bio researcher who is writing about physiological research that may be developing into more effective/accurate models of memory and learning than some current models (thanks Erica Kleinknecht! ) Specifically, her essay “Labels on the Brain” is great reading. I’m not sure I have the background knowledge yet that I will need to evaluate the effectiveness of competing models, but I’m interested in learning! 

Face or No Face? The Image Principle

Image source: (labelled for reuse, Creative Commons) 

Recently Zoom announced a new feature: teachers can use their PowerPoint or Keynote slides as a background when they teach (or make videos) via Zoom. I talked with several teachers who are excited about this feature, and it made me wonder about an overall question: in an instructional video, is it a good idea if students can see the teacher’s face? Just about every video conference/recording platform (Loom, Zoom, Screencastify, etc.)  makes it possible to put a little box or window into a video to show the teacher’s “talking head.” But does seeing the teacher talking help make the video or video learning experience more effective? 

I did a little digging and quickly ran into the idea of the “Image Principle.” This principle states that “including an image of an instructor’s ‘talking head’ during a multimedia presentation doesn’t necessarily improve learning outcomes.” (Mayer, 2001). But that phrase “doesn’t necessarily improve learning” doesn’t necessarily help us much! As teachers, how should we decide whether to include our face in a video or not? 

One useful way to think about this might be to use Cognitive Load theory. Our working memory (where we do our conscious, effortful thinking) can only handle so many tasks at once. Mayer points out that one of our goals in our videos should be to help students use their limited working memory space in ways that help them learn – to help them manage cognitive load. This means that we want to reduce “extraneous” load (anything that might cause students to think about things that aren’t relevant to what they are trying to learn) and include elements that help with “germane load” (cognitive tasks that help students thinking about what they should be thinking about in order to learn). 

So the image principle might change our question: instead of “Should I include my face or not in a video?” a better question might be “When is seeing my face relevant or helpful to the thinking students need to do?” Most of the time, students probably don’t need to see us during a video: usually we want them thinking about the words or images in the video and seeing our face might be extraneous load. But sometimes seeing a teacher’s face might be germane: if we are trying to establish a relationship in an early video and get students thinking about who we are as a teacher (and maybe who they are as a student), seeing our talking head might be useful. Or maybe we want to emphasize a specific point using our hands or other nonverbal expressions that are only possible with our face. It’s possible that occasionally including our face in a video could be used for emphasizing a vital issue, or an emotional connection with the material, or to get students’ selective attention focused on a specific point. 

I’ve heard and read advice for teachers similar to “always include your face in a video because it helps the students focus on your words.” Like most things in education, the reality is more complicated than these simple rules and advice imply. 


Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2011) “Cognitive load theory in practice: Examples for the classroom” 

Christodoulou (2020 “What does the research say about designing video lessons?” blog posted on 30-04-2020, 

Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Summary: 


One of the big issues in K-12 education (and maybe higher ed. too?) during the pandemic response is assessment. Many teachers use “forced choice” assessment items (multiple choice, etc.) to assess students, and those item formats are tough to use when students are learning from home. We can try all the fancy technology we have (e.g. lockdown browsers, Hapara, countdown clocks, etc.) but no technology is likely to compete with a student, their phone, and fast thumbs. 

I worked with some teachers in my district on another option called “think-alouds,” and it’s a technique that might work for many teachers in many contexts. Here’s the general idea: instead of asking students to just choose the best answer to a multiple choice item (which a student might just google), ask them to choose the best answer AND write out their REASONING behind that answer. Require students to “think aloud” – if students represent why they think the right answer is the right answer, we can at least use that multiple choice item and the student’s writing to measure if they are thinking about the question in the ways we want them to (even if they did just google the answer). 

This isn’t a new idea: large-scale test developers often use the “think-aloud” technique to confirm that multiple choice items are measuring what they are supposed to measure. Some great folks from the Stanford History Education group used this technique to gather evidence that the items on the NAEP test that are supposed to measure historical thinking probably don’t. I used to use this technique in my psychology class as a “test correction” technique. 

Here’s a possible “workflow” for think-alouds that might work for a teacher who is working with students remotely:

  1. The teacher looks at all the multiple choice items on their existing exam (the one they would use if students were in class face to face)
  2. The teacher keeps all the “essential” multiple choice items and gets rid of some of the less important ones (rationale: using the think-aloud technique will take students more time, so you may need to reduce the total number of items)
  3. The teacher re-formats the exam to include the multiple choice item AND space for the student to write out their thinking (e.g. a box in google docs/Microsoft word by each item, etc.) OR the teacher gives students instructions about how to add the think-aloud to the existing copy of the exam (e.g. teaching students how to add text to a .pdf using Kami, etc.- see example below) 
  4. The teacher sends each student a copy of the test with a deadline. Students choose the best answer to each item AND write out WHY they think this answer is the best answer. The test directions explain this process to the students, including the message to students that the think-aloud has to be THEIR thinking, not copied from anyone or anything else (that will be obvious to the teacher if students collaborate b/c their reasoning/wording will be very similar). 
  5. Students complete the think-aloud assessment, the teacher scores the tests, and sends feedback to students (either grades or feedback to students that they use to change their responses before grading). 

Here’s an example – this teacher (thanks Jim D.!) taught his students to use Kami to do think-alouds on a .pdf document.

Limitations of think-alouds:

– Students can still “cheat” – they can still look answers up on the web. But with the think-aloud technique, at least teachers can see if students are thinking through those answers correctly. 

– In assessment terms, the think aloud technique is probably a “modification”: it measures something different from a traditional multiple choice, face to face assessment. Teachers may want to think about whether they use data from the think aloud assessment in exactly the same way as they did traditional tests. 

– This is more work for students and teachers. It requires students to do more writing and teachers to read through student reasoning. Teachers should think critically about the numbers of multiple choice items they use with the think aloud technique. 

The think aloud technique is far from a perfect solution, but I don’t think we have many perfect solutions during the global pandemic. If you use this idea, please let me know so that I can update this blog post. Thanks in advance!

ADDITION (Sep. 2020):

I talked with a high school social studies teacher friend (Thanks Jeff B.!) and he encouraged me to add more specific examples. Here’s my attempt:

  1. If your “normal” test is about 30 multiple choice items, you might spend up front time going through those items and narrow it down to about 10 “most important” items. These are items that you think are the “best” ones: they ask about the most important information, and they do it in a way that requires students to think rather than just recall a term/fact. That probably means you’re choosing “application” or “evaluation” items, not “recall” or “definition” items.
  2. You might make two forms of the test: the in-person students get the “old” form – the one you usually use (30 multiple choice items). The zoom-in students get the new form of the test: the 10 “best” items with space for them to do the think-aloud technique, and directions somewhere explaining what they need to do.
  3. You get all the tests back from all the students. The old form with 30 multiple choice gets graded however it usually got graded. The new think aloud form requires a teacher to look through what students wrote, BUT it’s only 10 items, and you only need to look at the the think-aloud part: it will be obvious from what they wrote whether they should get credit for the answer or not.
  4. You figure out how to make sure there are = #s of points for both forms (this means that each of the think aloud items needs to be worth more than each of the “old” multiple choice items that the in person students tool. In my example, each of the 10 think aloud items could be worth 3 points, and each of the 30 old multiple choice items could be worth 1 point).

Note about grading: I think that grading the 30 “old” multiple choice items by hand might take about as long as looking through the think aloud responses to the 10 new think aloud items. But I could be wrong! (esp. if you had a way to automate scoring the old multiple choice items).


Ercikan, K., Arim, R., Law, D., Domene, J., Gagnon, F. and Lacroix, S. (2010), Application of Think Aloud Protocols for Examining and Confirming Sources of Differential Item Functioning Identified by Expert Reviews. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 29: 24-35. doi:10.1111/j.1745-3992.2010.00173.x

Smith, M. D. (2017). Cognitive Validity: Can Multiple-Choice Items Tap Historical Thinking Processes? American Educational Research Journal, 54(6), 1256–1287.

Learning Equations

Last week I got to read through feedback teachers sent me about a professional development discussion based on the 3 box model/working memory theory. One of the teachers said “In the end, I guess learning boils down to encoding and retrieval, and that’s what I’m going to focus on as I plan lessons for next year.” 

I liked this concise summary, so I decided to ask my friends on Twitter whether or not this “equation” for learning makes sense:

I don’t really think this “equation” summarizes everything about learning. Teaching and learning are incredibly complex, involve emotion, motivation, passion, relationships, and dozens of other factors. I love this article Stephen Chew wrote about this complexity: “Learning science and the teachable moment.” 

But I’m interested in “simplifications” about learning like this one (even if it is an over-simplification) as ways to start useful discussions. I posted the “equation” on twitter and got this response:

Paul Kirschner’s additions make sense to me: if we think about learning as the sum of encoding and retrieval, it makes more sense to include the idea that learning is the sum of repeated episodes of encoding and retrieval. I may use this version of the “learning equation” to start more conversations with teachers. 

[UPDATE: Dr. Kirschner talks about this in a recent ResearchED talk – worth watching! – “Ten Tips for Emergency Remote Teaching” – this screenshot is from about 4:50 in the video)]

But I will also remember to admit that this is all an oversimplification. I also received this reply on twitter.

I appreciate Erica Kleinknecht’s willingness to post several clarifications about limitations she sees in the 3 box/working memory theory (see this twitter thread: I’m interested in the ideas she shares about neural processing and learning, and I’m excited to learn more. I find cognitive load theory theory incredibly useful in my thinking about teaching and learning (see “Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand”), but I don’t want to fall into the trap of falling in love with a theory and letting that infatuation limit my ability to think about teaching and learning in other ways. 

Summary – Confronting Bias Through Teaching: Insights from Social Psychology


Many teachers are trying to figure out how to help students think through equity and bias issues highlighted this summer by the Black Lives Matter (and other group) demonstrations. In 2017, Chelsea Crittle and Keith Maddox (Tufts University) wrote a fascinating article with social psychology-based advice that might be useful to teachers planing these discussions. The article is behind a paywall and may not be available to some teachers (especially high school teachers) so I thought I’d try to summarize some of the suggestions from the article here. (UPDATE: Dr. Maddox kindly provided a copy of the article – thanks Dr. Maddox!! – Confronting Bias Through Teaching: Insights From Social Psychology)

Crittle and Maddox open the article with a powerful statement: “There are continuing disparities among racial, ethnic, gender, and other groups in the United States, and these disparities can be attributed to past and ongoing bias and discrimination faced by members of stigmatized and typically underrepresented groups.” I appreciate this clear, factual statement at the beginning of the article. The rest of the first part of the article is a useful literature review of past studies about addressing bias in classrooms.

Maddox and Crittle spend most of the rest of the article describing different techniques teachers can use to confront bias in classrooms based on social psychology research. Here are some highlights (along with my thoughts about how I might use this idea if I were still teaching high school psychology):

Teachers as messengers: Research indicates that teachers from under-represented demographic groups may have a MORE difficult time getting students to honestly address their own bias. Students may perceive teachers from some demographic groups as “defensive” or less professional when discussing issues about bias. Because of students’ implicit biases, teachers from non-stigmatized groups may have a greater opportunity to help students discuss bias. All teachers can help increase the chance that students will honestly address issues of bias by establishing a common “in-group” with students: focus on group membership that the teacher shares with the students (e.g. common team affiliation, hobbies, age, etc.) Activating this “we are in the same group” connection with students can help students overcome bias and resistance to the discussion. As with most teaching/learning, strong teacher-student relationships are important for discussions about tough issues like bias.

How I might use this idea: I am white and I taught in a mostly white school. I might discuss some of these “teachers as messengers” research findings with my students and talk about the implications of this research. The famous philosopher Stan Lee wrote “With great power comes great responsibility.” As a white teacher, this research leads me to conclude that it is my responsibility to use my privilege to help students confront racial and other biases, and I may be a unique position to do that. Acknowledging this research and this responsibility may help set the stage for some difficult bias-confronting conversations later.

Message Style: Fortunately, messages accompanied by strong evidence are more persuasive to students than evidence-free arguments. Studies indicate that teachers should use a combination of personal stories/anecdotes (peripheral route to persuasion) and empirical evidence (central route to persuasion) to help students engage with tough questions. Teachers may be able to use this combination to reinforce scientific thinking habits: anecdotes and stories are a potentially useful starting place, but we always want to look beyond personal experiences and figure out how to find/use group data from carefully controlled research studies. When conflicts arise during a discussion, teachers can usefully confront (and/or help other students confront) biased comments by using solid, evidence based arguments (rather than weaker arguments based on emotional appeals or personal attacks).

How I might use this idea: In my psychology class, I would seize the opportunity to talk about different kinds of evidence during the research methods unit. Psychology students need to understand what kinds of data psychological researchers need to examine before concluding about hypotheses. This discussion may help students think differently about their personal experiences within the context of findings based on with research data, which may in turn help them re-think biases resulting from their personal experiences.

Discrepancy factors: Teachers can help students overcome biases by helping them realize that these biases conflict with important values they already ascribe to. Having students talk/write about their personal values and pointing out how their biases might conflict with these values can help students confront their bias.

How I might use this idea: Class activities like the “It’s a Just World, Isn’t It?” activity might help students confront discrepancies between their beliefs/values and judgments they make about others due to bias. In this activity, students get to encounter the “just world phenomenon” and see differences in judgments based on irrelevant personal characteristics.

Perspective-taking strategies: encouraging students to “walk in the shoes” of disadvantaged groups (out-groups) can help lessen students’ denial about discrimination against those groups. These reflection strategies should be respectful and focus on taking the perspective of the out-group (rather than using superficial or even offensive simulations.)

How I might use this idea: Reading/hearing authentic voices from groups other than their own can help students challenge their pre-existing beliefs. I would find written or oral/video accounts from individuals representing different perspectives (especially from groups might students might consider “out-groups”). When I taught the psychological disorders and treatment unit in psychology class, I found personal accounts of people suffering from schizophrenia – listening to these actual experiences helped personalize the symptoms students read about in their textbooks, and humanized our discussions about psychological disorders.

Consciousness-raising strategies: teachers can use specific experiences designed to provide students with information about their own bias (such as the implicit association tests or related classroom demonstrations). Results from these experiences can help make bias more “real” for students.

How I might use this idea: I never had much luck using the online implicit association tests with my students. After receiving their score, students spent more time arguing about the nature of the test than discussing implicit bias. After seeing Dr. Maddox use a similar demonstration at a conference, I adapted this activity (originally written by Nancy Fenton): Knee-Slapping Implicit Bias.

Reference: Crittle, C., & Maddox, K. B. (2017). Confronting Bias Through Teaching: Insights From Social Psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 44(2), 174–180.