How the Brain Learns

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Want to discuss or share your knowledge of brain-friendly strategies for the classroom? Join the group and feel free to post comments, questions, videos, and audio to share with colleagues and other educators from around the world. Resources include:

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Most Recent Group Videos

    • International Conference on Thinking, Wellington, New Zealand

    • Dr Judy Willis was speaking at the International Conference on Thinking, Wellington, New Zealand. January 2013 
    • 2013 Annual Conference: Meet the Presenters -- Carol Tomlinson

    • ASCD author Carol Tomlinson discusses "Our Time" and the importance of making the most of every moment. Catch Carol's presentation live at ASCD's 68th Annual Conference & Exhibit Show, March 17, 2013, in Chicago, Ill. 
    • Classroom Instruction That Works Video

    • ASCD's bestselling book is now a video. Watch the preview and find the book and video at
    • TEDx Video Dr. Judy Willis Feb 1, 2012 PART 2

    • TEDx Video Dr. Judy Willis Feb 1, 2012 Topic “From Neuroscience Lab to the Classroom” TEDxEnola 
    • 2012 Annual Conference: Jay McTighe and Judy Willis

    • Jay McTighe and Judy Willis discuss the importance of collaboration among teachers. Catch their pre-conference institute March 21-23, ahead of ASCD's 2012 Annual Conference & Exhibit Show in Philadelphia, PA.  
    • Judy Willis: The Brain's Executive Function

    • Part V: One on One With Judy Willis

    • Judy Willis referenced TEDX dopamine effect

    • One on One with Dr. Judy Willis

    • Interview at Lower Canadian College about transition from neurologist to teacher
    • Edutopia Judy Willis Video A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool By Judy Willis MD 4/14/11

    • From Blog on Edutopia by Judy Willis, M.Dl Below is text that accompanies the video clip at                                   A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning ToolBy Judy Willis MD4/14/11 The popularity of video games is not the enemy of education, but rather a model for best teaching strategies. Games insert players at their achievable challenge level and reward player effort and practice with acknowledgement of incremental goal progress, not just final product. The fuel for this process is the pleasure experience related to the release of dopamine.Dopamine MotivationThe human brain, much like that of most mammals, has hardwired physiological responses that had survival value at some point in evolutionary progression. The dopamine-reward system is fueled by the brain's recognition of making a successful prediction, choice, or behavioral response.Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, when released in higher than usual amounts, goes beyond the synapse and flows to other regions of the brain producing a powerful pleasure response. This is a deep satisfaction, such as quenching a long thirst. After making a prediction, choice, or action, and receiving feedback that it was correct, the reward from the release of dopamine prompts the brain seek future opportunities to repeat the action. For animal survival, this promotes life or species-sustaining choices and behaviors, such as following a new scent that leads to a mate or a meal and remembering that scent the next time it is present.No Pain, No GainThe survival benefit of the dopamine-reward system is building skills and adaptive responses. The system is only activated and available to promote, sustain, or repeat some mental or physical effort when the outcome is not assured. If there is no risk, there is no reward. If there is no challenge, such as adding single digit numbers by a student who has achieved mastery in adding double-digit numbers, there is activation of the dopamine-reward network.In humans, the dopamine reward response that promotes pleasure and motivation also requires that they are aware that they solved a problem, figured out a puzzle, correctly answered a challenging question, or achieved the sequence of movements needed to play a song on the piano or swing a baseball bat to hit a home run. This is why students need to use what they learn in authentic ways that allow them to recognize their progress as clearly as they see it when playing video games.Awareness of Incremental Goal ProgressIn a sequential, multilevel video game, feedback of progress is often ongoing, such as accumulating points, visual tokens, or celebratory sound effects, but the real jolt of dopamine reward is in response to the player achieving the challenge, solution, sequence, etc. needed to progress to the next and more challenging level of the game. When the brain receives that feedback that this progress has been made, it reinforces the networks used to succeed. Through a feedback system, that neuronal circuit becomes stronger and more durable. In other words, memory of the mental or physical response used to achieve the dopamine reward is reinforced.It may seem counter intuitive to think that children would consider harder work a reward for doing well on a homework problem, test, or physical skill to which they devoted considerable physical or mental energy. Yet, that is just what the video playing brain seeks after experiencing the pleasure of reaching a higher level in the game. A computer game doesn't hand out cash, toys, or even hugs. The motivation to persevere is the brain seeking another surge of dopamine -- the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement.Individualized Achievable ChallengeIndividualized achievable challenge level is one where a task, action, or choice is not so easy as to be essentially automatic or 100% successful. When that is the case the brain is not alert for feedback and there is no activation of the dopamine reward response system. The task must also not be perceived as so difficult that there is no chance of success. It is only when the brain perceives a reasonable possibility of success for achieving a desirable goal that it invests the energy and activates the dopamine reward circuit.fMRI and cognitive studies reveal that the brain "evaluates" the probability of effort resulting in success before expending the cognitive effort in solving mental problems. If the challenge seems too high, or students have a fixed mindset related past failures that they will not succeed in a subject or topic, the brain is not likely to expend the effort needed to achieve the challenge.Brain effort is costly because this three-pound organ needs 20% of the body's supply of oxygen and glucose to keep its cells alive. The brain operates to conserve its resources unless the energy cost is low or the expectation of reward is high. In the classroom, that is the ideal level of instructional challenge for student motivation.When learners have opportunities to participate in learning challenges at their individualized achievable challenge level, their brains invest more effort to the task and are more responsive to feedback. Students working toward clear, desirable goals within their range of perceived achievable challenge, reach levels of engagement much like the focus and perseverance we see when they play their video games.Feedback or scaffolding may be needed to support students' perception that the challenge is achievable, but the levels of mastery are rarely the same for every student in the class. This is when we need to provide opportunities for differentiating and individualizing. These interventions range from clearly scaled rubrics, to small flexible groups for "as needed" support, or collaborative groups through which students can "enter" from their strengths. Descriptions of these strategies, beyond the scope of this article, are found in differentiated instruction literature.Game Entry Point is a Perfect Fit Through Pre-assessment and FeedbackThe best on-line learning programs for building students' missing foundational knowledge use student responses to structure learning at individualized achievable challenge levels. These programs also provide timely corrective and progress-acknowledging feedback that allows the students to correct mistakes, build understanding progressively, and recognize their incremental progress.The classroom model can follow suit. Video games with levels of play allow the player to progress quickly through early levels if the gamer already has the skill needed. Gamers reportedly make errors 80% of the time, but the most compelling games give hints, cues, and other feedback so players' brains have enough expectation of dopamine reward to persevere. The games require practice for the specific skills the player needs to master, without the off-putting requirement to repeat tasks already mastered. This type of game keeps the brain engaged because the dopamine surge is perceived to be within reach if effort and practice are sustained.Good games give players opportunities for experiencing intrinsic reward at frequent intervals, when they apply the effort and practice the specific skills they need to get to the next level. The games do not require mastery of all tasks and the completion of the whole game before giving the brain the feedback for dopamine boosts of satisfaction. The dopamine release comes each time the game provides feedback that the player's actions or responses are correct. The player gains points or tokens for small incremental progress and ultimately the powerful feedback of the success of progressing to the next level. This is when players seek "harder work". To keep the pleasure of intrinsic satisfaction going, the brain needs a higher level of challenge, because staying at a level once mastery is achieved doesn't release the dopamine.Bringing Incremental Progress Recognition to the Classroom... and BeyondIn the classroom, the video model can be achieved with timely, corrective feedback so students recognize incorrect foundational knowledge and then have opportunities to strengthen the correct new memory circuits through practice and application. However, individualized instruction, assignments, and feedback, that allow students to consistently work at their individualized achievable challenge levels, are time-consuming processes not possible for teachers to consistently provide all students.What we can do is be aware of the reason the brain is so responsive to video game play and keep achievable challenge and incremental progress feedback in mind when planning units of instruction. One way to help each student sustain motivation and effort is to shift progress recognition to students themselves. This can be done by having students use a variety of methods of recording their own progress toward individualized goals. Through brief conferences, goals can be mutually agreed upon, such as number of pages read a week (with comprehension accountability), progression to the next level of the multiplication tables, or achievement of a higher level on a rubric for writing an essay. Free bar graphs downloaded from the Internet can be filled in by students as they record and see evidence of their incremental goal progress. In contrast to the system of recognition delayed until a final product is completed, graphing reveals the incremental progress evidence throughout the learning process. I've found that for students who have lost confidence to the point of not wanting to risk more failure, it is helpful to start the effort-to-progress record keeping and graphing with something they enjoy, such as shooting foul shots or computer keyboarding speed and accuracy.Immediate Gratification or Long-term Goal Pursuit?Compared to an adult brain, a young brain needs more frequent dopamine boosts to sustain effort, persevere through challenges and setbacks, and build the trait of resilience. The brain's prefrontal cortex, with its executive functions (judgment, analysis, delay of immediate gratification, prioritizing, planning, etc.) will be the subject of a future blog. In relation to the video game model, it is important to plan instruction keeping in mind that the executive function circuits are late to mature – well into the twenties. The visible evidence seen on their graphs or rubric progress evidence helps students develop the concept that effort toward a goal brings progress. This, in turn, builds their capacity to resist their young brain's strong drive for immediate gratification. As students use visible models to recognize their incremental goal progress, they build the executive function of goal-directed behavior.Classroom instruction that provides opportunities for incremental progress feedback at students' achievable challenge levels pays off with increased focus, resilience, and willingness to revise and persevere toward achievement of goals. The development of students' awareness of their potentials to achieve success, through effort and response to feedback, extends far beyond the classroom walls. Your application of the video game model to instruction encourages the habits of mind through which your students can achieve their highest academic, social, and emotional potentials.
    • Judy Willis: On the Challenge of Engaging Students

    • Neurologist and author Judy Willis discusses video games and the importance of differentiating instruction to students at their achievable challenge level. Dr. Willis will present her session on Learning to Love Math at ASCD's Annual Conference & Exhibit Show in San Francisco, Calif., March 28, 2011 at 12:45 p.m.
    • Eric Jensen on Bold Actions

    • Teaching With Poverty in Mind author Eric Jensen discusses bold actions needed in education. Jensen will present his session on poverty at ASCD's Annual Conference & Exhibit Show in San Francisco, on Saturday, March 26, 2011, at 1:00-3:00 pm.                                                  
    • Using Humor to Maximize Learning

    • I am passionate in my quest to find and promote humor research and share related resources. Check out my book,"Using Humor To Maximize Learning"  which is currently being used at several universities as a text and is the text for the international AATH Humor Academy. My Interactive Workshops include information about current brain research on humor and stress.  They are designed to encourage individuals to enhance their humor practice.  This works much like improving one’s physical fitness lifestyle; in that there is an evaluation of current practice followed by goal setting.  Always Fun  
    • Build community

    • Posted by Judy Willis but created by Institute Participant: To build community a member (I'll post her name and school when I have that permission) of the Learning and the Brain Summer Institute at UCSB that I just finished leading had us do a simple count off with bizarre voices. She explained that it breaks the ice with "no mistake fear" so faculty and students can raise dopamine with laughter, movement, positive peer interactions, and optimism and be motivated to sustain participation.
    • Judy Willis RAD Animoto Video Neuroplastity

    • Just as traffic congestion improves with additional lanes, neural transmission improves in speed, efficiency, and durability when the networks develop more connections (dendrites, synapses) and additional layers of insulating myelin. That is why Practice makes Permanent. I made this video on the free website to "advertise" and promote curiosity among my students for the lessons I taught them about their own brains. When they understood about the value of review and restimulating their own networks, homework and test review wasn't any more "fun" but the understood that "neurons that fire together, wire together" and they were building their long-term memory circuits when they participated in class and did that homework. Most convincing was my proposal that if they built a strong network and restimulated it with use, they would never have to "relearn" what a least common denominator was ever again.
    • Mistakes Make You Smarter

    • You can make your own free short videos like this one at It is so simple because the program does all the transitions and has the video clips, stills, and music you just click and add (or use your own).  I made this one  to begin presetatons about "Mistakes Make You Smarter." It is about how making mistakes, followed by timely corrective feedback and practice, alters the neural circuits to "rewire" the network with correct information. Then, with practice, neuroplasticity strengthens the corrected network and the brain becomes "smarter".
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Most Recent Group Photos

    • Lisa Young (1st choice).jpg

    • cain portrait.jpg

    • In the New ASCD Studio

    • Leigh Cooper, Leslie Welch, author Judy Willis and Adam Welch before the first video shoot in the new ASCD studios.
    • Goldie and Judy as copresenters

    • Goldie Hawn and Dr Judy Willis Building Better Brains

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    • The RAD Strategies Applied

    • Differentiation Strategies Video Link

    • ASCD Daily Brief: Meet Dr. Judy Willis on Brain research has provided educators with a better understanding of instructional practices not only essential for students with special needs, but also their peers. In new video segments on, author Judy Willis offers strategies from her book "Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom" on how to differentiate classroom instruction to meet the needs of all learners. She also shares some background research on the brain and examines how the brain learns. Watch the video.    
    • Joyful Learners


  • I am a middle school reading intervention teacher and would like to get better at developing learning activities that can engage my students as soon as they walk in the door. Some teachers call these activities "bell ringers", but most of the standard suggestions, like journal writing or worksheets, are intended to pacify students rather than engage them. Does anyone have any "brain-based" suggestions?
    Bradley_Bethel, 4 years ago| Flag
  • At a recent 3-day Institute I gave for Learning and the Brain at University of CA, Santa Barbara, 35 educators gathered to learn RAD and other neuro-logical strategies. As their final project they created their own RAD lesson plans in powerpoint, print, and animoto videos. I'm attaching the first one, by my daughter, Malana Willis, who was my great aide during the Institute
    At a recent 3-day Institute I gave for Learning and the Brain at University of CA, Santa Barbara, 35 educators gathered to learn RAD and other neuro-logical strategies. As their final project they created their own RAD lesson plans in powerpoint, print, and animoto videos. I'm attaching the first one, by my daughter, Malana Willis, who was my great aide during the Institute. It ill be posted in the discussion groups if it doesn't show up here. Title: A R.A.D. Lesson for Second Grade Math (fractions)
    Judy_Willis, 4 years ago| Flag
  • I hope to meet math teachers here who use brain-based strategies in math.
    jkrauss, 4 years ago| Flag
  • I failed to explain that the link to my Psychology Today online article
    Is for my article May 25, 2009,
    Your Most Embarrassing Mistakes Did You the Most Good
    Enjoy and keep igniting,
    Judy_Willis, 4 years ago| Flag
    In response to your question about how kids handle mistakes, that will in fact be the topic of my next Webinar: Oct 14: Ask Dr. Judy Webinar: How Can I Get Students to Participate When They Don’t Want To Risk Mistakes? Learn how the brain learns powerfully from answering all questions, right or wrong – when there is timely feedback. Since students’ greatest fear is making a mistake in front of classmates, what strategies can you use so all students are comfortable and accountable responding to your questions?
    Registration starts in late September for this free webinar (
    IN ADDITION, my just released book is largely about changing negativity, often from mistakes or failures, into motivation and learning. Learning to Love Math: Teaching Strategies that Change Student Attitudes and Get Results, ASCD 2010, although titled "Math" is not math specific in the general strategies, as you'll find through the free links to several chapters. There is a chapter and parts of other chapters dedicated to increasing student participation by helping them deal with mistakes and even be willing to risk future mistakes, even though for most students, making a mistake in front of peers is their greatest school fear. Just go to the website,
    Judy_Willis, 4 years ago| Flag

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