Prepping the Brain for Learning: Simple Strategies, Powerful Results

Brain Based Results

In addition to increasing background knowledge, we can prepare students’ brains academically, emotionally and physically before the learning process.  Below are specific examples of prepping academically.

Prepping the Brain Academically – EXAMPLES

  • Ask students to visualize the grammar rule, what a vocabulary word looks like, steps to solving a word problem or math procedure, historical event or a setting from a book.  This is a powerful priming tool.  A picture paints a thousand words.
  • Reviewing information is a great way to bring forth the established neural network so it is fully prepared to “add to” the collection!  Reviewing can be a form of activating prior knowledge.  Give each student dry-erase boards to show you correct answers as you give students questions or choices.  A quick “show me” helps the teacher scan the audience to see who is getting it and who is not. A short pre-test quiz can also do the same.
  • Implicitly Suggest – Set them up for success right away with subtle motivational techniques.  Research showed that when students who took a test marked with an “A” had better performance on that test than those that had their test marked “F” (the markings were on the front cover of the test as a Test Bank ID code).  The research focused on how primed evaluative letters (grades of an “A” versus an “F”) affect explicit and implicit achievement motivation, and therefore, cognitive performance (Ciani & Sheldon, 2010).


I’m not suggesting that you place the letter “A” on tests beforehand, but I’m suggesting that we help students believe ahead of time that they are ready for this (because there was effort to learn it and support to get it) test or assignment.  Even having your first set of questions as simple and familiar questions can set the stage for their brains.  Teachers who do many formative assessments and student self-evaluation tools have actual data to show students that they are ready for the test.  This alone is a motivating factor that they can do well on a test.

  • Pre-Teach Vocabulary Words – Before doing an activity, teaching content, or reading, take the time to pre-teach the most important vocabulary words/concepts in an engaging, interactive, memorable way.  Pre-Teaching vocabulary in social studies and science helped the struggling reader in researched studies (Carney, Anderson, Blackburn, and Blessing, 1984) (Moran, 1990).   This pre-exposure will give them the chance to identify words while reading and then be able to place them in context and remember them better.Use some of the following strategies for pre-teaching vocabulary:

– Role playing or pantomiming
– Taking the words and categorize them (List-Sort-Label)
– Predicting how these words might be used in the reading
– Connecting the words with other words and phrases they are familiar with
– Showing the word in the context they will interact with soon but leave the word out.  Then students guess which words goes into the blank (cloze activity)
– Matching words with pictures that go with them – a game!
– Using gestures or play charades
– Showing real objects
– Pointing to pictures or Googled Images
– Doing quick drawings on the board
– Elaborating on the word’s meaning with examples and stories

  • Book Tagging – Have students look through a book and tag with a sticky note a page with a picture, graph or diagram that is new or interesting to them.
  • Bulletin Boards – Create an interactive bulletin board about the unit and post it about one week before the unit begins.  They can bring articles, websites, questions, Googled images to place on the web so that learning about that topic continues.
  • Flipped Classroom – Have students read and learn about the content at home as an assignment so they can come to class with the background knowledge ready to apply that learning through an activity, writing, simulation, project, etc.  One of the advantages is more time making sure the students are practicing the information correctly and at higher level.  More feedback can be given too!
  • Quick Fact Sheet – Before reading historical fiction books, ask students to  read a fact sheet about that time period so they understand the setting and mannerisms throughout the book better.
  • Pre-Assessments – This is a 2-fold power strategy.  Not only will the teacher get some data about where the students are with the upcoming unit or target, but he/she will also be giving students a priming opportunity.  Some of the information on the pre-assessment implicitly sticks to their memory and creates or adds to the existing neural networks.


Now that you have several strategies for prepping the brain academically, equally important if not more important, is prepping the brain emotionally and physically!

Prepping the Brain Emotionally & Physically

  • Create a positive learning culture. To get students ready to learn, make the environment safe, build relationships in fun manners, and then get them to care about the content and activities. Once each student cares or is invested in your topic, building the basics gets much easier. New explicit information (concepts, terms, definitions, insights, summaries, facts, and so on) is held for a few seconds in our working memory.Working memory must deem the content important enough to pass it to the hippocampus part of the brain.  This whole learning process starts with trust, safety, excitement, care and YOUR attitude!  It starts with your mood, energy levels, attitudes, gestures and facial expressions. Show your students that they can trust you by answering every comment, question or discipline with an affirmation of the effort the students made.
  • Prep their States of Minds (somewhat like moods) – a positive state of mind can produce an amazing learning experience. Help them visualize their favorite place that makes them smile.  Simply ask them to participate in fun energizers or play a game for immediate success and challenge.  We might have them participate in a quick simulation that causes curiosity and wonder.  We might even ask students to engage in deep breathing with slow music on to calm their brains. Chocolate and healthy treats work wonders too!!!
  • Think Long-Term –  Explain to students how their brain works during the learning process.  The more they understand, the better the choice in strategies they will use to help them achieve their goals.  In fact, they can learn how much sleep their brain needs every night to function optimally, learn which foods protect the brain and give it focus, and how exercise can actually regenerate brain cells!
  • I recommend the book:  It’s All in Your Head for middle and high school students. This book takes them through understanding their brains and yet gives them strategies that are easy to implement.  The following websites and articles can guide them as well:;;;
  • Amazing Short Term Results – Right before a test, maximize your brain power by feeding the brain well.  For about 45 minutes of brain fuel, have students do about 25 jumping jacks (great for indoors and small classrooms), drink water, and eat a healthy snack to provide energy.
  • Think Dopamine.  Overall, eating protein, participating in voluntary gross motor exercise/movement, and being part of a positive learning culture can all foster the production of dopamine. Dopamine induces positive affect, aids in flexibility and gives working memory a temporary boost.
  • Destress the brain before learning.  We know that a little adrenaline is good for learning – it enhances memory, but too much cortisol, another stress hormone, can actually hurt learning and brain cells.  I used the strategy called “Bracketing” often in my classroom.


When students came back from recess or lunch stressed about something that occurred there, I asked them to write on a sticky note how they felt about what happened.  This act of writing frees the prefrontal cortex so that it can think deeply about the content coming ahead versus the emotions.

Remember, emotional experiences TRUMP all other experiences or content.  It’s the most powerful memory lane out there.

Carney, J., Anderson, D., Blackburn, C., & Blessing, D. (1984). Preteaching vocabulary and the comprehension of social studies materials by elementary school children. Social Education, 48(3), 195-196.
Ciani, Keith D.; Sheldon, Kennon M.  (March 9, 2010) British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 80(1), pp 99-119, DOI 10.1348/000709909X466479  A versus F: The effects of implicit letter priming on cognitive performance pp. 99-119(21).
Hattie, John. (2009).  Visible Learning:  A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement.  New York, NY:  Routledge
Jensen, Eric and LeAnn Nickelsen (2014).  Bringing the Common Core to Life.  Bloomington, IN:  Solution Tree.
Jensen, Eric and LeAnn Nickelsen (2008).  Deeper Learning:  7 Powerful Strategies for In-Depth and Longer-Lasting Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press.
Martin, A. & van Turenout, M. (2002).   Searching for the Neural Correlates of Object Priming.  In D. Schacter and L Squires (Eds), Neuropsychology of Memory  (pp. 239-247).  New York:  Guildford Press.
Moran, Patrick. (1990).  Lexicarry:  An Illustrated vocabulary builder for second languages.  2nd revised edition.  Brattleboro, VT:  Pro Lingua Associates. 162 pp.

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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