Science of Learning · Teaching Strategies

Attention + Memory= Learning

The last post focused on the importance of memory development in the classroom and how we design our units are integral to what students remember (repetition is the key). The strategies discussed were spacing learning over time by using  delayed learning techniques and assessments for review. Though I want to post about assessments again soon I first would like to stay on the topic of attention and memory.


Attention + Memory= Learning

The formula that all teachers know intuitively, it is the foundation of our classroom routines, behavior expectations, how we decorate our classroom, why we incorporate play and centers, and so many other things that we do because we know it works. To a neurologist learning formula is the same thing: attention + memory. However, the focus is more on how the brain structures are stimulated and shaped by experiences, and the learning implications of this.

The brain has the capability to rewire itself with every new learning experience by building neural pathways. With repetition these pathways become stronger, in a sense. However, the pathways by themselves don’t indicate learning, as the brain is also affected by various chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline – which influence typical behaviors seen in a classroom.  Scientists believe that norepinephrine is involved with attention the most- when it’s low a learner is usually unfocused or tired, high levels and a learner is hyper or stressed out. Stress can manipulate these chemical levels and change behavior. That’s why creating positive relationships, focusing on mindfulness, and social-emotional learning is so important to students and any successful learning environment.

The brain also have natural highs and low times of being able to maintain attention. Some studies show an actual change in blood flow and breathing rates during these attention cycles. This indicates that students require breaks in their learning. Some suggestions are 5-10 minutes breaks every 30 minutes or so. Research also shows us that the brain can really only focus on external stimulus for about 10 minutes- before becoming distracted. This is important because then the brain begins to internalize the learning in order to process and make sense of the new material. In fact this break time (time away from the direct learning) is actually the most important time as it is when long-term memory formation is building in the brain.

How the brain responds to stimulus, how the environment affects brain development and the natural attention span of individuals all have direct implications for the classroom. As teachers, it’s important to factor in how our students learn to our daily structures and routines. Strategies that can be utilized in the classroom which align with how our student’s learn include timing, social-emotional needs, novelty and allowing processing time.

Suggestions for the classroom:

  1. After 10 minutes of lecture make time for personal processing and/or active learning opportunities
  • Ball toss to review main ideas
  • Reflection in a journal or worksheet (independent or partner)
  • Small group discussion of ideas
  • Creative outlets like drawing, creating foldables, matching activities

2) 30 minutes of instruction is typically the most that can happen before needing a 5-10 minute break.

  • Beginning or end of class can be used as reflection or or reinforcement
    • Bellwork
    • Unit packets
    • Exit tickets
    • Journaling
    • Cooperative assignment
    • Discussion

3) Incorporate social emotional learning into the classroom and develop positive relationship with your students- reducing stress is the key to learning

  • Mindfulness
  • Goal-setting
  • Motivation development
  • Humor

4) Add novelty to the classroom routine (routines make sure there is lack of stress and security, novelty grabs the attention)

  • Change of locations when possible- either by teaching different part of the room or going outside, library or computer lab
  • Use fun, energizing rituals for class openings, closings
  • Clapping, changing tempo or volume, singing, joking, using props as a way to get attention, listening to music
  • Have visual and/or auditory cues and signals (e.g., give me 5, clapping hands)


Let me know what you think about incorporating these ideas in the classroom! Is there something you do to help you maintain your students attention?

Here’s a great resource:

Attention Getting Tips:

Next Post: Classroom Activities for Active Learning


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