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May 28, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 18

Neuroscience Supports Successful Student Academic Teams

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Instructional Strategies
Classroom Management
When we visit classrooms across the country, we typically see the same pattern of teacher-centered instruction comprised predominately of lecture and independent practice activities with the students' role in learning as passively compliant (see Figure 1). The students either sit in rows or may sit in "furniture groups," but there is usually no structure or expectation for learning together. Is this the most brain-friendly way for students to learn?


Figure 1. Teacher-Centered Instruction with Dependency on the Teacher (Toth & Sousa, 2019, p. 22)

The Neuroscience of Student Engagement

The more teachers talk during a lesson, the less time there is for student engagement and in-depth student discussions. In his meta-analysis of the influences on student achievement, Hattie (2012) noted that teachers talk between 70 and 80 percent of class time. Furthermore, only 5 to 10 percent of teacher talk prompts more student engagement. These traditional teacher-centered methods where the teacher talks and the students listen, with limited opportunities for student engagement, aren't fully tapping into students' potential.
Research studies show that talk is a powerful memory device (Forrin & MacLeod, 2018), and that talking about new learning helps the student to comprehend and remember it (Sedlacek & Sedova, 2017). There is also a strong positive correlation between the degree of students' engagement with their learning and academic achievement (Lei, Cui, & Zhou, 2018). Translating these research findings into classroom practice suggests that teachers should provide students with in-class opportunities to process and discuss new learning with their peers. Furthermore, it means that teachers should urge students to probe further and look for real-world applications of the new learning, thereby increasing the probability that it will be remembered. The more students probe the learning, look for other applications, and discuss alternative solutions, the greater the number of neural pathways that are activated in their brains.

Three Key Factors of Student-Led Academic Teams

Moving from a teacher-centered classroom to a more brain-friendly learning environment requires a real change in the role of the students in their learning process. Students must become more autonomous and self-regulating. Studies have shown that teacher support of student cognitive autonomy is positively correlated to reading achievement (Marshik, Ashton, & Algina, 2017), and students' ability to self-regulate is positively correlated to academic achievement (Hinnant-Crawford, Faison, and Chang, 2018). However, students need a structure for exercising cognitive autonomy and self-regulation. Student-led academic teaming provides that structure with a daily instructional process where students work in teams, collaborate, and peer coach while engaged in rigorous, standards-based tasks. In teams, students can become interdependent with each other and less dependent on the teacher (see Figure 2).


Figure 2. Student-Led Academic Teams with Interdependencies Among the Members (Toth & Sousa, 2019, p. 26)
In our research on student-led academic teams, there are three factors that create the interdependence necessary for brain-friendly and successful learning:
  1. Academic Teaming Process: A genuine teaming process includes roles, norms, and social and emotional interaction protocols. At first, the teaming process is awkward for students and the teacher because students are not familiar with being responsible for their own learning or working with diverse peers unlike themselves. However, as the teacher persists, the students quickly begin to norm their behavior and form social bonds that translate to social safety for the learning process. Students learn to work together and support each other to achieve their learning targets.
  2. Rigorous Learning Tasks: Academic teaming requires teachers to spend more time planning intentional, authentic (contextualized to the real world), and rigorous tasks. Without enough rigor and challenge, students simply could accomplish the task independently without activating their peers for feedback and support. It is the rigor of the learning task that forms the need for interdependence of the team members and creates engagement in the learning.
  3. Environment of Autonomy: Academic teams will not reach their potential if the teacher does not step back from directing and assume the role of team coach instead. When teams struggle, the impulse of most teachers is to directly intervene to get the team on track. This approach creates a dependency on the teacher instead of building the student agency within the team to manage and lead its own learning. For team autonomy to happen, teachers must take on the role of a team coach and redirect the team to using their roles, norms, or resources to figure out the issue themselves.
When these three factors are present in a classroom, the transformation to a brain-friendly, student-centered learning environment happens very quickly. Reluctant and disadvantaged learners increase their participation as soon as the social safety and bonds form in the team, creating greater access to the learning for all students. As students develop increased agency within their academic teams, they continue to use their agency skills in the hallways, cafeteria, and playgrounds to self-regulate and interact with their peers in positive ways. The big payoff for schools is this dual effect of increased test scores and increased positive behavior creating an improved school culture. All of this is due to the fundamental change in the role of the students in their learning process. As neuroscience has revealed, the brain that does the work is the brain that learns. Academic teaming transfers most of the cerebral work from the teacher to the students in a way that increases equity, access, and agency for all students.

The Results Are Significant

Academic teaming implementation has proven successful on a large scale. For example, a 10,000-student multiyear study was conducted using the federal What Works Clearinghouse Design Standards in the Des Moines (Iowa) Public Schools district, a refugee resettlement community where more than one in five students is an English learner. The study found that students at all schools where academic teaming was implemented experienced statistically significant improvements in reading and mathematics achievement compared to students at matched control schools, with up to 37 percent improvement in reading and up to 26 percent improvement in mathematics. Of particular interest is how academic teaming empowered students who had achievement gaps. Black students, students with disabilities, and English learners all saw achievement gaps close by 4 to 7 percent in one year.
Equally impressive is the story of William D. Moseley Elementary School in Putnam County, Fla. Moseley is a historically low-performing school where 100 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch, 25 percent receive special education services, and more than 80 percent of students are of color. Moseley engaged with the Applied Research Center at Learning Sciences International and committed to transforming instruction from teacher-centered to student-led academic teams. Moseley went from being the fifth lowest performing traditional public school in the entire state—rated an "F" by Florida's accountability system—to achieving a "C," the school's highest rating in 10 years. Student proficiency increased by 20 percent in English language arts and by 13 percent in mathematics over the course of only two years—see Figure 3 (Learning Sciences International, 2019). The school also made great strides in equity for students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged, Black, and Hispanic students between 2017 and 2019, reducing the number of ESSA subgroups missing the federal target (scoring below 41 percent) down to zero after their second year.


Figure 3. Achievement scores increased after William D. Moseley Elementary School committed to implementing student-led academic teaming schoolwide

The Power of Academic Teams to Change Students' Lives

To appreciate the true power of academic teams, we can look to the story of one student in particular. During a research interview, a teacher at Moseley told us about a student who transferred into her 2nd grade classroom. Moseley was his fifth school. He was a reluctant learner, and his reading diagnostic revealed that he could not read. He told his teacher he did not like to talk to other students, but she quickly immersed him in an academic team. The students welcomed him, included him in their reading tasks, and helped support him with the tasks. By the end of the school year, he had grown two grade levels on the reading diagnostic. Equally impressive, his social and emotional skills grew to where he became a team leader and now helps other struggling students.
Every student can experience increased academic and social emotional learning success. If the role of the learner changes from being passive in traditional teacher-centered classroom instruction to a brain-friendly learning environment where students take charge of their own learning, every student can thrive – and every student's brain will really be doing the work.

Forrin, N. D., & MacLeod, C. M. (2018). This time it's personal: The memory benefit of hearing oneself. Memory, 26(4), 574–579.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

Lei, H., Cui, Y., & Zhou, W. (2018). Relationships between student engagement and academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Social Behavior and Personality, 46(3), 517–528.

Marshik, T., Ashton, P. T., & Algina, J. (2017). Teachers' and students' needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness as predictors of students' achievement. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 20(1), 39–67.

Sedlacek, M., & Sedova, K. (2017). How many are talking? The role of collectivity in dialogic teaching. International Journal of Educational Research, 85, 99–108.

Toth, M. D., and Sousa, D. A. (2019). The power of student teams: Achieving social, emotional, and cognitive learning in every classroom through academic teaming. West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.

David A. Sousa, EdD, is an international consultant in educational neuroscience and author of more than a dozen books that suggest ways that educators and parents can translate current brain research into strategies for improving learning. He has made presentations to more than 200,000 educators across the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia.

Sousa has a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Massachusetts State University at Bridgewater, a master of arts in teaching degree in science from Harvard University, and a doctorate from Rutgers University. He has taught senior high school science and has served as a K–12 director of science and a district superintendent in New Jersey schools. He has been an adjunct professor of education at Seton Hall University and a visiting lecturer at Rutgers University.

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