The Rules of Engagement

The Rules of Engagement:

A Brain-Based Approach to Teaching in the College Writing Classroom

Carolyn Carter

In teaching high school, I became familiar with a somewhat recent trend in secondary instruction pedagogies: brain-based teaching. Seems intuitive, right? Since learning involves the brain, classroom activities and environments should adhere to brainfriendly research. Basic psychology shows that the more engaged the brain is in a learning activity, the better the learned material is encoded. And yet, typical college classrooms rarely reflect considerations of how the brain best learns. Fifty minutes of lecture in a class of a hundred students with little variation of lecture speed or direction, little movement of the body, and little opportunity for interactive engagement with the professor, the other students, or the material itself does nothing to promote (and may even debilitate) healthy cognitive learning. If judged based on how the brain learns best, the college classroom is typically a difficult place for learning to occur.

The first-year writing (FYW) class, however, characteristically offers more opportunity for student engagement than a larger lecture course. Because of smaller class sizes and the general nature of a writing class (in which students are forced to engage with the learning materials through frequent writing assignments), the FYW classroom lends itself well to brain-based pedagogies. The smaller class sizes and interactive structure of the class (through peer reviews, student-teacher consultations, etc.) naturally promote student engagement more than other classes might, but there is still much room for improvement if we, as FYW instructors, want to create lasting change in the way our students write. That room for improvement lies not in how many peer reviews students do or in whether they use webs or outlines as prewriting activities but in how the learning that occurs in all of these experiences is encoded in the brain.

For years, psychologists and educators have believed that genetics and early childhood environments were the most significant factors in intellectual capacity. However, recent studies show that not only does “the brain [have the] lifelong capacity to reshape itself in response to experience” (Sticht) but “environmental influences [may] be more significant than hereditary factors,” determining up to 70 percent of the brain’s wiring (Wilmes et al. 659). If learning is less dependent on the genetics of a person and more dependent on the environment in which his or her brain learns, then we, as educators, must learn how to create brain-friendly environments in our classrooms.

How Long-Term Learning Happens

As FYW instructors, we hope that the principles of writing we teach are embedded forever in the way our students write, not just exhibited for one semester in our course. For this kind of long-term learning to occur, the brain must make lasting synaptic connections—connections that are made through the plasticity of neurons, the brain’s information transmission cells. (Cozolino 12). Since long-term learning (neural encoding) is dependent on higher levels of neural plasticity, finding factors that increase neural plasticity ought to be essential to college classroom pedagogies, especially those of the FYW classroom. Writing requires the neurons to make sophisticated synaptic connections, adapt to changing writing situations, and modify previous learning about the way writing happens; the better enabled neurons are to do these actions, the more effective the resultant learning is. In this paper, I will focus on two ways we as FYW instructors can enhance neural encoding in our writing students to create more meaningful learning: (1) building safe and trusting interpersonal relationships within the classroom and (2) using physical movement to increase student engagement.

Interpersonal Relationships as a Factor in Meaningful Learning

Brain research shows that one factor in promoting (or hindering) neural plasticity is the tone of the social interactions of the environment in which the brain is learning. The most productive classroom interactions are those based on feelings of trust, safety, and mutual respect (Ross 31) while those characterized by fear, stress, or anxiety are counterproductive to neural functioning. This is because during stressful situations, “glucose, the fuel of the brain, travels from the center of the brain where reasoning and thought occur and goes to the muscles” (Wilmes et al. 660), thus detracting from the functioning of the brain. As this kind of response is also usually accompanied by quickened heart rate and breathing, it may take the student some time to fully recover to a state in which the brain is ready to learn again. If the stress inducers are consistent enough to produce chronic threat in the classroom, excess glucocorticoids—toxic to neurons—may also be produced (Conant). This kind of counterproductive stress in the classroom can be caused by scolding, threats, finger pointing, humiliation, sarcasm, or unrealistic deadlines (Wilmes et al. 670)—all of these are unnecessary additions to the anxiety many FYW students already have about performing well in one of their first college classes.

Compared to other classes that FYW students may be taking, the writing class may be especially stressful, as it encourages a lot of sharing—and critique—of their writing. If students have had negative experiences (perhaps even to the point of humiliation) with peer reviews, teacher conferences, or in-class workshops in the past, they may be reluctant to share their work aloud or with peers. This makes it all the more necessary to create a classroom environment in which students feel safe and respected as writers and as students. Whether reluctant to share their writing or not, though, all students will benefit from a classroom atmosphere of caring interpersonal relationships.

There are many ways a FYW teacher can implement caring pedagogies in the writing classroom. Eric Jensen, a leading figure in brain-based pedagogies, suggests that creating positive classroom relationships through sharing stories and having discussions about issues and ideas bolsters students’ feelings of safety in the classroom (79). In my own classroom, I emphasize the importance of getting to know and respect each other as peers and as writers through discussions and activities specifically planned to accomplish such. During the first few weeks of a semester, I spend the first five minutes of each class having students move around the classroom, meet someone new, and discuss a prompt I give. At first, the prompts are low-risk kinds of questions: What is your favorite book and why? What is the best gift you’ve ever received? and so on. These questions are low risk (I have yet to have a student dispute or reject a peer’s answer to the best gift he or she has ever received) and begin building an environment in which ideas can be shared comfortably between students. After the students have discussed the question with their partners, I’ll take a few minutes to open the question to class discussion. This allows me to get to know students better and to respond in a caring, interested way, thus building their trust in me, as well as in each other.

As the semester continues, though, the discussion questions place the students in more vulnerable positions. I might ask about their feelings about the issues presented in class readings or how they interpret the meaning of various speeches, lyrics, or rhetorical phrases. Because these questions have the potential to have “wrong” answers, students will feel more vulnerable in discussing their feelings and ideas. Ultimately, this kind of gentle incubation of trust among students and toward me is building to the point that students don’t merely consent to share their writing and discuss improvements with me and with each other, but they’re actually eager to get others’ feedback because they have come to value, trust, and respect the viewpoints of their peers. Fostering these kinds of caring interactions—in which differing opinions aren’t just accepted but sought out and considered in regards to improving writing—helps students develop positive affinities to collaborating on writing, thus creating a learning environment in which students’ mental energies can go toward learning, rather than toward responding to the stresses of a perceived threatening classroom environment.

Physical Movement as a Factor in Meaningful Learning

It can be easy for educators of adults (as Zull writes in his article “Key Aspects of How the Brain Learns”) to confuse the goal that students “get . . . information” with our real aim—that students learn (5). In many classrooms, this confusion of learning aims creates what Alison King calls the “Sage on the Stage” phenomenon—fifty minutes of students sitting through and “soaking up” a very intelligent but not-so-learning-friendly lecture. Just as elementary school–aged brains crave physical movement in learning new things (think what a kinesthetically rich environment the elementary classroom is), our adult brains do, too.

Physical movement does a few things for the brain: First, it releases dopamine and norepinephrine (Jensen 79). These chemicals, in healthy doses, result in positive emotions towards an activity (previously shown here as important to a productive learning environment) and in a stronger and more organized memory (both factors that will improve students’ writing) (56). Second, physical movement increases blood flow to the brain, which increases oxygen to the brain. Increased oxygen in the brain excites active brain chemicals, which translates into “a greater number of connections among neurons” (Jensen 62). This “moderate level of arousal—where the learner is attentive and motivated to learn—maximizes the biochemical processes that drive the protein synthesis necessary for modifying neural structures” (Cozolino 13). Clearly, physical movement can play an important role in enhancing cognitive growth and synaptic connections, not just for young learners but for college students as well.

For many reasons, college instructors might shy away from implementing physical movement in their lesson plans: Their classrooms may be too small for students to be moving around in. It may take time away from the “getting information” aspect of a college course. It may even seem too taxing (or too much of a stretch, if you’ll pardon the pun) to create movement activities that connect to the learning aims of the classroom. While these concerns are understandable, FYW instructors need not be inventing elaborate activities—like grammar obstacle courses or MLA format relay races—to incorporate physical movement in their classroom. Any activities that stimulate blood flow to the brain, that get students to shift in their seats a little, that break up the lecture-induced paralysis so many of them experience midway through class will benefit the students’ engagement with the course material.

When my class seems to be slogging through the discussion and three students in a row have to ask me to repeat the question because they “zoned out for a minute,” I know it’s time to move. Simple movements are often all students need to reengage: a study on exercise and blood flow at Texas A&M University found that standing raises heart rate (and therefore blood flow) by as much as 5 to 8 percent in a matter of seconds (Krock and Hartung). If students are in a particularly silent stupor, I might have them pick up their backpacks and change seats, or I might request they raise their hands, stand up, or run to the board if they agree with certain statements I make regarding the topic of discussion. Any movement that requires them to shift a little to get out of their state of near-hibernation always results in brighter eyes and better interaction with the lesson’s content.

One Monday morning, my students were particularly disengaged. I opened class with a discussion on the reading from the night before. It was a rather controversial article, and I anticipated that my normally enthusiastic students would be nothing less than erupting with comments on the topic. However, after restating the question twice, prompting responses multiple times, and calling on several students by name without sign of life (let alone engagement), I said, “Alright, everyone out of your seats. We’re doing yoga!” They chuckled a little at first. And then they realized I was serious. A little reluctantly, they pulled themselves up to standing positions. I then walked them through some simple arm stretches, neck stretches, back bends, and so on. We sat back down, I reopened the discussion, and five students (all sitting straight up at their desks now) raised their hands, ready with meaningful comments. From there, the discussion (and lesson for the day) proceeded with energy and enthusiasm for the learning material.

I think this worked for several reasons: First, the novelty of being forced to get out of their seats to do yoga in a writing class stimulated rarely connected areas (exercise and writing) in their brains—not to mention the sheer humor of the situation. Second, the fact that I acknowledged that the class discussion was not working and showed that I was willing to change things up to help my students better engage strengthened their desire to help me do my job of teaching. And third, the cognitive explanation: the blood was now flowing to their brains! They smiled to each other, commented on how funny the whole thing was (thus breaking them out of their shells for the morning), and we were off to more engaged, effective learning!


As educators, we must be able to gauge the needs of our class. Often my greatest struggle isn’t knowing what to teach students but knowing how to teach them in a way that is meaningful to them—a way that will promote the kind of long-term learning about writing that I hope to give my students. Though more research needs to be done before we know just how effective brain-based pedagogies are in encouraging neural plasticity, developing nurturing interpersonal relationships and incorporating physical movement have, without fail, helped my students interact in more meaningful ways with the FYW content, with each other, and with me. By becoming educated pedagogues on the factors that create the most enriched environments for the brain, we can build classrooms in which connections between neurons, and between students and writing, flourish.




Works Cited

Conant, Beth. “Learning: What We’ve Learned.” Early Childhood Educators’ and Family Web Corner. n.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2010.

Cozolino, Louis, and Susan Sprokay. “Neuroscience and Adult Learning.” New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education 110 (2006): 11–19. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Nov. 2010.

Jensen, Eric. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005. Print.

King, Alison. “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side.” College Teaching 41.1 (1993): 30–35. Print.

Krock, L. P., and G. H. Hartung. “Influence of Post-Exercise Activity on Plasma Catecholamines, Blood Pressure and Heart Rate in Normal Subjects.” Clinical Autonomic Research 2.2 (1992): 89–97. Print.

Ross, Colin A. “Brain Self-Repair in Psychotherapy: Implications for Education.” New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education 110 (2006): 29–33. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Nov. 2010.

Sticht, Tom. “Neuroscience Trends and Adult Literacy.” Literacy Today 52 (2007): 7. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Nov. 2010.

Wilmes, Barbara, et al. “Coming to Our Senses: Incorporating Brain Research Findings into Classroom Instruction.” Education 128.4 (2008): 659–66. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Nov. 2010.

Zull, James E. “Key Aspects of How the Brain Learns.” New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education 110 (2006): 3–9. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Nov. 2010.