Wow! Ed: Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvment
Brain Training &
EES (Emotions, Exercise & Sleep)
July 2017
In This Issue

Brain Training Critiques

Emotional Intelligence

Physical Activity

Dear Educators,

Summer is here and the livin' is easy. You might be sleeping in, or perhaps you have found time for a hike in the woods or a swim in the ocean. Unless of course you are working a second job, teaching summer school, or you are a school or district administrator with a 12- month schedule.

To compare and contrast scenarios: the first suggests a sense of peacefulness, calm, and harmony. The second, a polar opposite.

How do our brains handle it all? And what can we do when our students and our staff our overwhelmed, under pressure, or struggling to keep up? Neuroscience might have some answers. Tess Henrie reminds us of the relationship between emotions and learning. This is followed by an article by Masha Jones, a doc student at the University of Southern California who is researching neuroscience and its implications for education. In the last article Adriana Jarquin and I take a look at two important factors for increasing brain efficiency - exercise and sleep.

So sit back, take a sip of your sweet tea, and consider how brain training and EES (Emotions, Exercise and Sleep) might help with student engagement and learning. Who knows, you might even consider how to adjust your school's schedule... 
Neuroscience Confirms the Benefits of Emotional Connections to Learning
By Tess Renirie, CEI Intern
Can teachers become more effective by learning about neuroscience? As our knowledge of brain activity increases exponentially, what are the implications for classroom instruction?

Measuring Emotional Impact

In a TedTalk, Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California and President of the Mind, Brain, and Education Society, described how our feelings impact our learning, memory and retention. When people are emotionally connected with a story, their emotional responses mimick activity in the same brain centers as the hunger monitoring within somatosensory cortex and the basic life support functions of the brain stem. In fact, there appears to be a strong relationship between emotional connections and survival (TEDx Talks, 2011).

As the picture at the left shows, the brain stem and hunger centers are activated when a person is emotionally connected.

There are two brain areas that regulate emotions: the brain stem with the surrounding limbic system and the cerebral cortex (Sylwester, 1994). The amygdala is the primary structure of the limbic system and is involved with processing memories and emotional experiences. The signals sent to the amygdala are what allow people to make quick decisions in reaction to potential threats or danger (Sylwester, 1994).

Emotions help keep humans alive when they are in threatening situations or other contexts that require attention. At the most basic level, negative emotions will cause humans to avoid the threatening contexts and positive emotions will lead to humans approaching a positive context ( "Emotional Intelligence Network- Six Seconds," 2015). Those types of emotions also involve the release of either cortisol if an individual is stressed or endorphins if an individual is happy (Sylwester, 1994).

Skin conductance as a measure of emotional investment. While PET scans and neuroimaging provide valuable information on brain functions, other measures are also useful. One doctoral student from the University of São Paulo neuroscience program completed research measuring skin conductance by placing electrodes on peoples' fingers to measure sweat, a routine way to measure emotionality in the field ( "Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections," n.d.). Measuring the amount of sweat is an outward measure of an automatic response to emotionality. Although skin conductivity does not directly measure emotionality, skin conductance greatly increases when people are emotionally engaged. The student observed skin conductance levels while physicists and lay people with and without an interest in physics took a physics test. He found that physicists had far more skin conductance than lay people without a background in physics. However, people with an interest in a physics demonstrated an emotional response that was similar to those with in-depth knowledge and training.

Tapping into Feelings in Schools

Consider your students. How emotionally invested are they in the day-to-day instruction at your school? We may be able to generalize from research that neuroscientists have conducted in laboratory settings to increase the efficiency of learning. At a very basic level, the laboratory research confirms that when people are interested in a topic or emotionally invested in an outcome, brain activity increases.

Emotions and problem solving in math.
At one inner city school, instead of relying on rules and repetition, a teacher introduced an emotional connection to math through talking about practical application. The teacher advised students to know how much money a shirt will cost after sales tax is added on in order to avoid being "ripped off" or humiliated ("Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections," n.d.). The children were asked to tap into a time when they experienced a negative emotion in order to find a solution for use in the future to avoid the associated negative emotion.

Emotional responses to photos. A high school teacher from Brooklyn used an emotional connection to photographs to teach photography concepts, like depth of field (Baylin, 2010). This teacher urged his students to consider their emotional responses to photographs. Students focused on their emotional reactions prior to learning about the vocabulary and techniques associated with depth of field. Emotions can help connect memories in students' minds for future recall because memories are dependent on the context, emotional or otherwise (Sylwester, 1994).

Using open-ended questions and intuition in math. Another possible method to increase positive emotional connections with math is to present open-ended questions, which requires students to use their previous experience and knowledge to answer questions that may have more than one solution (Immordino-Yang & Faeth, 2004).
  • For example, teachers could present an issue that involves learned math concepts and common problems confronted in family life in order for children to use experience, prior knowledge, and intuition in the solution.
  • Strengthening intuition will increase long-term memory and learning that is enduring (Immordino-Yang & Faeth, 2004).
  • Teachers can strengthen intuition through simulations that involve probability and risk. Students can learn the rules of a game, while also trusting their unconscious hesitance to make a risky bet. By simulating the impact of a making a risky choice and including how it might personally affect the student's life, the decision becomes more realistic (Immordino-Yang & Faeth, 2004).
  • Teachers who foster emotional connections to learning by encouraging children to use prior experiences and intuition to problem solve. When children relate school material to an emotional experience from their personal lives, their emotions may help them to remember the skills and the material from the classroom instruction.
Embracing Emotions, Engaging Students

By embracing the possible benefits of using emotions to strengthen learning, educators could create classrooms where the students are more engaged and interested in learning. Furthermore, there are many different emotions that can help in the classroom, not just interest in the topic. For example, negative emotions like sadness can help jog children's memories or remind them that they do not want to feel those emotions again in the future. 

When teachers consider and plan for emotional components, they are able to call upon these additional tools or strategies to motivate students and help students understand more about their own interests or connections to their studies. Ultimately this could lead to more student investment in academic learning, higher levels of student engagement, and students who excel because of their fascination with the topics they study.


Baylin, E. "Depth of field/Depth of understanding: Finding the emotional connection." Schools: Studies in Education Vol. 7, No. 1 (2010).

Emotional Intelligence Network- Six seconds. (2015).

Imordino-Yang, M. H., & Faeth, M. (2004). The role of emotion and skilled intuition in learning. In D. A. Sousa (Ed.), Mind, brain, and education: Neuroscience implications for the classroom (pp. 69-84). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Neuroscience and the classroom: Making connections. (n.d.).

Sylwester, R. (1994). How emotions affect learning. Educational Leadership, 52(2), 60-65.

[TEDx Talks]. (2011, November 6). TEDxManhattanBeach - Mary Helen Immordino-Yang - Embodied Brains, Social Minds [Video File]. 
Brain Training: Does it Work for Everyone?
By Masha R. Jones, CEI Research Fellow
Brain or "cognitive" training, which hinges on the idea that your brain can grow and be trained like a muscle, is all the rage these days. It's a wonderful concept full of potential and optimism. You want to be smarter? You can be smarter through brain training. Your students can't focus? Brain training will help them focus. You're getting older? Brain training will enhance your longevity. Your child has ADHD? Brain training will alleviate the symptoms. Or should we say, brain training might alleviate the symptoms of ADHD, brain training might help with focus, and brain training might increase learning efficiency?

Researchers are Torn

But does brain training work? Should you implement a brain training program at your school? Researchers are actually quite torn when it comes to this question. There's a lot of evidence that it does work, but there is also evidence that it might not (e.g., Au et al., 2015; Au, Buschkuehl, Duncan, & Jaeggi, 2016; Melby-Lervåg & Hulme, 2016). As researchers go about the slow business of carefully investigating the efficacy of brain training programs, the market is much less hesitant. Just take a look at the brain training apps available in the app store on your iPhone. There are too many to choose from. As educators, it's our job to understand what's really going on and to make an informed decision before implementing brain training interventions.

"Does brain training work" is probably not the right question, though. There is no "one-size-fits-all" in human interventions. Is there any educational practice or psychotherapy intervention that works for everyone? Certainly not. The key is to understand for whom cognitive training works, so that interventions can be more specifically targeted. Although individual differences in response to brain training is a new area of research, we're beginning to understand some general trends. Factors that seem to be important include personality and motivation (Katz, Jones, Shah, Buschkuehl, & Jaeggi, 2015). 
Brain training tasks are hard. They have to be, if they're going to make any difference. However, persisting through difficulty is not something all children or even adults can do. Successful brain training, then, requires a conscientious personality type. Conscientious individuals are those who are more likely to be persistent, especially in the face of difficulty. They are hard-working, self-disciplined, and competitive. There is evidence that brain training is more successful for them (Studer-Luethi, Bauer, & Perrig, 2015; Studer-Luethi, Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, & Perrig, 2012), and that it's particularly less effective for those who are highly emotional or anxious (Urbánek & Marček, 2015). 

Growth Mindset. The motivational factor that seems to be related to the efficacy of brain training is having a growth mindset. Having a growth mindset means that you believe your intelligence is not fixed - that intelligence can be changed though effort. This is in contrast to having a fixed mindset, which means that you believe you're just born smart or not, and nothing you can do will change that. Individuals with a fixed mindset do not benefit as much from training as their peers with a growth mindset (Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Shah, & Jonides, 2014). This makes sense, and I like to think of it as the Yoda factor: If you don't believe it, it won't happen. If you don't believe you can change your brain through effort, then of course you won't invest the effort.

Thus, when considering a cognitive training program in your school, think about your students.
  • Are they ready for brain training?
  • Are they up for the challenge, and
  • Do they believe that they have the ability to improve?
If they are, it's certainly worth a shot! If not, keep an eye out for emerging interventions that may be more successful with individuals who lack a growth mindset, are less self-disciplined, or may lack motivation. And, rather than simply spending money on a brain training product, it might be more effective to partner with researchers who are trying to better understand and improve brain training programs. Perhaps you and your students can be collaborators in the generation of new knowledge.


Au, J., Buschkuehl, M., Duncan, G. J., & Jaeggi, S. M. (2016). There is no convincing evidence that working memory training is NOT effective: A reply to Melby-Lervag and Hulme (2015). Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 3(October), 331-337. 

Au, J., Sheehan, E., Tsai, N., Duncan, G., Buschkuehl, M., & Jaeggi, S. M. (2015). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory: a meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 105(19), 6829-6833.

Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Shah, P., & Jonides, J. (2014). The role of individual differences in cognitive training and transfer. Memory & Cognition, 42, 464-80. 

Katz, B., Jones, M. R., Shah, P., Buschkuehl, M., & Jaeggi, S. M. (2016). Individual differences and motivational effects. In Cognitive Training (pp. 157-166). Springer International Publishing.

Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2016). There is no convincing evidence that working memory training is effective: A reply to Au et al. (2014) and Karbach and Verhaeghen (2014). Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(1), 324-330.

Studer-Luethi, B., Bauer, C., & Perrig, W. J. (2015). Working memory training in children: Effectiveness depends on temperament. Memory & Cognition

Studer-Luethi, B., Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., & Perrig, W. J. (2012). Influence of neuroticism and conscientiousness on working memory training outcome. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(1), 44-49.

Injecting New Life - Changing Old Habits
By Adriana Jarquin, CEI Intern and Christine Mason
Recent studies in neuroscience have started to shed light on ways students learn that may help educators enhance school environments and modify class routines to enhance learning. One technique involves modifying existing classroom regiments by introducing "Spark Breaks." More controversial are findings regarding teenagers' sleep cycle and suggestions for modifying school start times. Some schools have taken the initiative to adapt their school start times to teen's needs but the process, as we will see, has been slow. 
Spark Breaks and Miracle Gro

Midland Secondary in Canada has incorporated "spark breaks" in their daily schedule. Spark breaks are being given to kids to improve their concentration when  studying history and calculus. Spark breaks can include anything from playing soccer in the hallway, to ultimate Frisbee in the yard to even "swimming" across the floor. These short breaks are often given by teachers after introducing a new concept in math or while switching subject matters. Whenever teachers feel the focus of the class slipping, they can incorporate a quick 10-15 minute spark break in which students are involved in a physical exercises that simultaneously distracts them from the subject at hand while also given their brains an opportunity to process and reenergize. At St. Wilfrid Catholic School, in Toronto, Ontario, spark breaks take the form of a 20 minute daily aerobic routine with hip hop music in preparation for the day. Barrie Central, another high school, has incorporated short cardio exercises to their 75 minute classes, and Elmvale District High School incorporated a 20 minute afternoon break for students to exercise.

Canadian schools are basing their exercise brain boost programs on research conducted by Dr. John Ratey, a Harvard University neuroscientist, who calls physical activity "Miracle Gro for the brain." Ratey has found that exercise increases blood flow to the brain, enhancing mood, alertness, and attention and bringing nutrients to the brain to build new neuropathways.

In some schools, the spark breaks even take the form of incorporating math or art with physical exercise. For example, students may run clockwise and counterclockwise circles or even choreograph and perform dances when studying symmetry and geometry. In schools across Canada, spark breaks may look different but they all have the same focus: to provide students of all grades with exercise time to improve their learning. In an interview, a student at Midland Secondary stated, "Not only are they refreshing, but you're still in work mode which makes it easy to refocus and start up again." Benefits of the spark breaks have even carried over to home life. Rachel, a student at Barrie Central, has reported taking her own spark breaks while doing homework by going out and shooting hoops or taking a short walk. She finds it helps her refocus on work. 

Though many may be quick to see that physical breaks positively contribute to the academic development of students, some scientists believe that the reason exercise isn't more valued in school is society's obsession with test scores. When school test scores fall, it is common for school boards to want to spend more time training teachers and more time drilling students with work. Exercise breaks must seem counter intuitive, but we can learn a lot from the programs in Canada. At Barrie Central after the program was implemented their math scores increased 10% raise over the previous school year as well.

Teen Sleep Cycles 

Growing evidence suggest that teen's natural sleeping cycle are affecting the way they learn. Sleep cycles in humans are regulated by our circadian system. This system provides organization to regulate mechanisms and behaviors such as feeding, reproductive and sleep/wake cycles. The internal mechanisms that control these rhythms can be found in a small paired nucleus in the hypothalamus, the suprachiasmatic nucleus. More specifically, melatonin is the hormone that is secreted and helps regulate sleep/wake cycles. During the day time, levels of melatonin are nearly absent and raise in the evening near bedtime where they stay constant until one's natural wake-up time when they decline once again. As a result, an individual's sleep cycle will be affected by light levels in rooms and technology screens especially during the nighttime. 

There is a developmental delay in the circadian system of adolescents; their "internal day" is longer than the normal 24 hour. An analysis of research conducted with 27 adolescents showed that their average day cycle was 24.27 hours. This has led to approximately a two hours delay in their sleep cycles. As a result, teens' brains don't tell them to sleep until two hours later than adults (usually around midnight) and it take two hours longer to fully be alert in the morning (usually around 10 a.m.).

Based on the neurological discovery in sleep/wake cycles in teens, a 4-year study was undertaken in seven high schools in the Minneapolis Public School District that shifted their start time from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. A total of 12,000 secondary students participated. The school district provided data on all letter grades earned by the students over 6 years -- 3 years before and after the school started the schedule change. Additionally, data on attendance, ethnicity, tardiness, graduation rates and rates of continuous enrollment were provided by the district. Finally, data were gathered from a subgroup of 1,200 secondary students in grades 9-12 who completed the Sleep Habits Survey twice (once in the 1st year of the change and once again in the 4th year). 

Results. Continuous enrollment for participating schools increased from 49% before the change to 57.8% after the intervention for grade 9 and 54.4 % to 65.5% for grade 10. Students reported sleeping about an hour more each school night than their peers who started at 7:30am and slept an average of 5 hours more a week. Additionally, depressive symptoms were less likely in those students who started school at 8:30 a.m. than for their earlier counterparts. Students also reported that they were less likely to arrive late to class or fall asleep in their morning periods. Out of 335 teachers surveyed, 57% of the teachers reported an increase of alertness in the first two periods of the day and 51.4% reported fewer students falling asleep at their desks. 

Despite growing evidence of the benefits of later start times, school administrations have a hard time changing their school policies. Many fear changing their community's rhythm by disturbing normal school schedules, and cite logistic problems such as figuring out new school bus schedules and budgets. Similarly, schools face opposition from some coaches who were not too thrilled about school ending later and their practices being pushed back later.  While a variety of factors may make it difficult to alter school start times, it may be that research regarding required hours of sleep and ways to enhance teen sleep and alertness will help communities find related strategies for assuring that adolescents have sufficient sleep and more available brain power during their academic school day.

Fiddling with Time

As recent pilot studies in Canada, Minneapolis, and the UK have demonstrated, incorporating short physical breaks and even starting school later can lead to better attendance, more alert students, and greater educational success. Sometimes schools, in order to save time and advance academic learning, may benefit from taking time for breaks or adjusting academic schedules. As results of neuroscientific studies are demonstrating, factors beyond the academic content and the rigor of instruction play an important role in student success.


Crowley, S. J., Acebo, C., Carskadon, M. A. (2007). Sleep, circadian rhythms, and delayed phase in adolescence. Sleep Medicine, 8, 602-612. 

Wahlstrom, K. (2002). Changing times: Findings from the first longitudinal study of later high school start times. NASSP Bulletin, 88(633), 3-21.

Bringing a bit of Summer to the Fall

Summertime, a time for taking a break from it all.

Are there lessons from summer that we could take back for the fall? When your teachers return in August could they brainstorm about how to put a little summer into the September to May routines?


Christine Mason
Center for Educational Improvement