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How Can Teachers Help Improve Student Learning?

Many factors can improve student learning, from good nutrition, adequate sleep and exercise to stress-free learning environments, great parenting and community engagement. However, teachers have little, if any, control over any of these factors. Given all of the outside influences in a student's life, how can a teacher help improve student learning?

Current Brain Research

Much is being learned about the human brain's ability to be rewired and reorganized to work more quickly and efficiently. According to neuroscientist Dr. Martha Burns, "From our very earliest days, the brain begins to map itself to our world as we experience it through our senses. The mapping is vague and fuzzy at first, like a blurred photograph or an un-tuned piano. However, the more we interact with the world, the more well-defined our brain maps become until they are fine-tuned and differentiated."

Early learning experiences during what used to be considered the critical period of a child's first years help to form brain maps and networks that define how a child learns. In recent years, experimentation and research have determined that "our brains can change well past the critical period — and throughout our lives."

External influences like poverty can have a significant impact on the brain and the ability to learn. "Differences in the frontal lobe, which affects cognitive skills like organization and self control can impact a child's ability to pay attention, listen, and learn on demand."

Dr. Burns identifies five ways that educators can influence positive brain changes in their students every day:

  1. Feed the brain. School meal programs can help ensure that students receive nutritious meals to help boost focus, attention and memory.
  2. Build relationships. Teachers who form positive relationships with students can help reduce stress from toxic to tolerable.
  3. Supplement instruction with neuroscience-based interventions. Using programs designed to target cognitive skills can help struggling learners make progress.
  4. Give students intensive practice. Repetition and practice create and strengthen connections in the brain.
  5. Provide timely rewards. Brain exercises should immediately reward correct responses, resulting in the brain secreting helpful neuromodulating chemicals like dopamine and acetylcholine.

How Data Can Help

The instructional team at Broken Arrow Public Schools (BAPS) in Oklahoma was driven by a lack of data that could monitor the progress of their students to discover how to improve student learning in their district.

According to Jennifer Peterson, Executive Director of Elementary Education at BAPS, the first step in a three-year effort of collaborating to identify data that could drive instruction was to train all teachers in the professional learning community process (PLC). They started by discussing the four most important questions:

  1. What do our students need to know? (Standards)
  2. How are we going to teach them? (Instructional Delivery)
  3. What are we going to do if they do not know it? (Remediation)
  4. What are we going to do if they already know it? (Extension)

The instructional team researched which programs could help teachers answer questions 2, 3 and 4. Once they implemented a way to benchmark and provide ongoing progress monitoring for their students, they focused on training teachers how to use the resulting data. Being able to identify which students already knew the concepts being taught, and which did not helped teachers to personalize instruction. They were then able to identify which students needed remediation and which students were well advanced and needed enrichment.

Peterson says that while there is no "magic data bullet" that will ensure all students will learn, "The amazing part, the part that fuels our passion to move forward continually, is the small changes that we see each year at each site and the growth that is occurring in our students."

Motivation Impacts Learning

Even the latest technology and teaching materials can't help students learn if they are not motivated. The staff at TeachThought, dedicated to supporting educators, compiled a list of 21 ways to improve student motivation.

Among the recommendations, giving students a sense of control by allowing them choice in assignments ranks highly. In order to help students relate classroom material to real life, it's important to know them and allow them some flexibility to relate their interests to what they're learning.

Setting clear goals, providing opportunities for success, tracking progress and providing feedback are all ways that teachers can help students stay motivated. Offering rewards and giving praise when earned help make the learning fun.

Helping Teachers Improve Learning Outcomes

Northwest Missouri State University offers a fully online program for teachers to earn a Master of Science in Education in Curriculum and Instruction. This program has an emphasis in engagement, learning and achievement and focuses on teaching educators the best instructional strategies for student success.

Among courses that emphasize technology, change management and student engagement, Northwest includes the class Data Literacy and Assessment for Schools. This 7-week course focuses on the development of skills related to finding, evaluating, analyzing, prioritizing and integrating data sources for the improvement of student learning.

The online format of this Master of Science in Education in Curriculum and Instruction program enables working educators to pursue an advanced degree while balancing the demands of a full-time teaching job and family responsibilities. The flexible nature of online learning makes it possible to complete the 30-hour program in as few as 12 months.

Learn more about Northwest's MSEd. in Curriculum and Instruction online program.


eSchoolNews: 5 Ways Teachers Can Improve Student Learning Based on Current Brain Research

eLearning Industry: Using Data to Improve Student Learning: The Case of Broken Arrow Public Schools

TeachThought: 21 Simple Ideas to Improve Student Motivation

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