Cognitively Priming Students for Learning

Amy Jessica McMillan

Willis, J. (2014). Cognitively Priming Students for Learning. Retrieved November 7, 2014, from

Judy Willis, a neurologist turned elementary school teacher turned education professor, writes an ongoing blog for Edutopia about brain-based teaching strategies. This article explains how to grab students’ attention so their brains will work to learn more. Willis’s advice involves inviting students to make predictions about upcoming units. For example, the teacher might choose a particularly thought-provoking image or video and provide more hints and clues about it as the unit goes on. According to Willis, “When students want to know required information to create solutions to problems that interest them or to create products that they care about, the brain applies the effort to learn what is required to achieve desirable goals” (para. 8).  In other words, our brain is automatically set up to be curious and to take steps to satisfy this curiosity. We teachers have the job of making students want to know more.

I am a frequent reader of Dr. Willis’s blog. She gives practical ways that we teachers can work with students’ brains to help them learn. In this article, she reminds readers that students who have “relevant goals” are motivated to achieve them. Their brains are hardwired to work towards goals that make sense to them personally. On the other hand, students who don’t see school as relevant, do not see the value in working hard. Then, they reinforce that feeling by failing and therefore seeing even less worth in trying. Their brains are telling them that the effort would be better served elsewhere. This explanation makes a lot much sense to me because I see this all the time in the classroom. The trick is to make the students curious, to make them want to know more. Their brains will take it from there.

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