Prepping the Brain for Learning: Simple Strategies, Powerful Results

Brain Based Results

By: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. And Dr. Eric Jensen

If someone asked me to define learning simply, I would say:  Learning is the acquisition and storage of new input such that a lasting neural network is formed. These neural networks may reactivate older ones to connect more information in proper categories (well sometimes that is…).  When multiplied by millions, these connected neural networks make me who I am and help me to use these storage sites to accomplish goals and apply what I’ve learned.

Every student comes to the learning opportunities with a different schema or background knowledge.  When students use these already-created, neural “superhighways” learning is often more effective and efficient. When educators prepare, prime or pre-expose the brain before learning new information, we are helping students assimilate the information in smarter and easier ways.  Every student comes to the learning journey with a “state of mind”, or some call them moods.  If positive, there is a better chance of that student having a successful learning opportunity; if negative, sad, hopeless, and unmotivated, there is a greater chance of learning not occurring.  We can and must prepare our students’ brains academically, emotionally and physically before the learning process.

Common core strategiesIn my most recent book with Eric Jensen, Bringing the Common to Life, we wrote about the importance of priming or pre-exposing the brain and begins:

“The level or quality of student background knowledge contributes to achievement, since the existing neural networks (if supportive and accurate) can provide the vocabulary, mindsets and original facts needed to succeed. If students don’t have suffi­cient background knowledge to build on, you will need to integrate the missing chunks of information into your instruction with scaffolding”.

There’s a good reason to do this: what students already know and how they have performed on the subject is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information about it. In fact, it ranks a powerful 0.67 effect size (Hattie, 2009), which places it in the top 20 percent of all achievement factors. In the world of research, you’ll often hear the phrase effect size used. An effect size is simply a standardized measure of the effect that one agent has on student achievement.

While it’s possible to have negative effect sizes, most fall between 0.00 and 0.40. Effect sizes falling under 0.20 are considered minor. Those from 0.20 to 0.40 are considered moderate. Any effect size from 0.40 to 2.0 is considered very significant” (Jensen & Nickelsen, 2014).  So having background knowledge is highly correlated with student achievement.

Author: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. is the author of 11 books focused on teaching strategies: Deeper Learning (2008) and Bringing the Common Core to Life (2014) are the more recent books. LeAnn specializes in cognitive science in education by using the best tools to reach every student. LeAnn is passionate about schools becoming more empathy-centered. You can contact her: or visit her website:

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