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November 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 3

Research Link / How Does the Brain Learn Science?

The United States Department of Education recently reported that U.S. students scored below the international average on the science portion of the general knowledge assessment and were among the lowest scoring of the 21 countries who participated (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1998). Although this news may be discouraging, researchers are beginning to unlock the secrets of the mind. Can we improve student achievement in science by using new knowledge about learning?

A Brain-Based Classroom

Research by DeBacker and Nelson (2000) shows that the degree to which students and their teachers collaborate on the development of learning and performance goals is directly related to the characteristics of a learning environment. When teachers emphasize learning strategies and the importance of student effort, students gain a greater sense of control over their own learning. That sense of control is particularly important for students who struggle in school. Students feel more in control when they can note their progress and attribute it to their efforts in using effective learning strategies.
Pinkerton (1994), a science teacher, tested DeBacker and Nelson's view of student control and positive classroom characteristics. Using his own science classes as a teaching laboratory, he explored ways to enhance the brain-compatible learning environment to determine whether doing so could produce better learning conditions for his students. In addition to expanding student control, his teaching repertoire included thematic teaching; enriched language use; naturally complex, long-term design and construction projects; and multifaceted assessment tools.
Pinkerton discovered that these teaching techniques had three major effects on his students and their learning. First, his students discovered that learning takes place when they are actively engaged in an intellectual struggle. Second, they learned that grades do not depend on luck but rather on what they can demonstrate about their knowledge. Third, they learned that knowing how they think helps them work.
Pinkerton's conclusions are supported by research conducted by Jones, Carter, and Rua (1999). These researchers found that students learned better when teachers used a constructivist approach that involved teaching science in a variety of ways. The researchers provided evidence that this instructional approach may be more useful in enhancing conceptual growth than the traditional use of worksheets and notetaking. When teachers incorporated constructivist theory into their teaching practices, they began to recognize the fruitfulness of these approaches.


Science instruction provides teachers with still another opportunity for increasing the possibility that learning will occur. When a procedure is repeated frequently, the brain stores the information for easy access. Science laboratory exercises can accommodate this storage process. In the laboratory setting, many traditional activities (such as observing, measuring, recording, and analyzing) are frequently carried out on numerous occasions over time. These laboratory experiences only become effective, however, if the work is repeated often enough to become a procedure. Science teachers should always assess whether these repeated laboratory experiences are effective.
Sprenger (1999) recommends that teachers take their students to the science lab and allow their episodic memories to work by giving students the equipment they used in past procedures and allow them to "walk" through the process, writing down each step as they work. Students can then answer application, analysis, and synthesis questions on a traditional assessment. When the brain stores information in procedural memory, that information is easy to retrieve.
  • Encourage student autonomy, initiative, and leadership.
  • Allow student thinking to drive and alter lesson plans.
  • Ask students to elaborate on their responses.
  • Allow wait time when asking questions.
  • Encourage students to interact with one another and with their teachers.
  • Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions.
  • Encourage students to reflect on experiences and predict future outcomes.
  • Ask students to articulate their theories about concepts before the teacher presents his or her understanding of the concepts.
  • Look for students' alternative conceptions and design lessons to address any misconceptions.
It is evident that the science achievement levels of our students can improve given the support and experiences provided by brain-based instruction. However, according to Laplante (1997), many prospective teachers receive preservice science instruction that seemingly prepares them to become museum curators whose main responsibilities are to accumulate and display the curiosities of the world. Successful teacher-training programs should provide teachers with learning experiences that will allow them to engage their students in learning activities that help both student and teacher experience an empowering rapport with scientific knowledge.

Anderson, O., & Stewart, J. (1997). A neurocognitive perspective on current learning theory and science instructional strategies. Science Education, 81(1), 67–90.

DeBacker, T., & Nelson, R. (2000, March/April). Motivation to learn science: Difference related to gender, class type, and ability. The Journal of Educational Research, 93(4), 245–254.

Jones, G., Carter, G., & Rua, M. (1999). Children's concepts: Tools for transforming science teachers' knowledge. Science Education, 83(5), 545–557.

Laplante, B. (1997). Teachers' beliefs and instructional strategies in science: Pushing analysis further. Science Education, 81(3), 277–294.

National Center for Educational Statistics. (1998). Pursuing excellence: Initial findings from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education [On-line]. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/timss/twelfth/chap2.html

Pinkerton, K. (1994, Fall). Using brain-based techniques in high school science. Teaching and Change, 2(1), 44–61.

Sprenger, M. (1999). Learning and memory: The brain in action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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