Teaching the Brain to Learn

March 12th, 2017

As we progress through life, our behavior in certain situations changes. We may do most of those behaviors without even thinking about it. For example, when I get in my car, I instinctively put my seat belt on. Why? Today, I would like to introduce you to two perspectives that might explain how I learned this behavior: behaviorism and cognitive processes. Behaviorism is the idea that external events are the cause of changes in observable behaviors (Woolfolk, 272). This theory believes that thing like conditioning, punishments, and reinforcements shape people’s behavior.

According a behaviorist, I probably put my seatbelt on to avoid hearing that annoying bell that won’t stop until I buckle my seatbelt. However, from the cognitive perspective, I might put my seatbelt on because I saw my parents putting their seatbelts on as soon as they sat down in the car and I remember their behavior and want to model my own behavior after their behavior. This behavior was learned through what cognitive psychologists would call modeling-learning by imitation. This is because the cognitive view of learning focuses on the internal mental processes of acquiring, remembering, and using knowledge (Woolfolk, 312).

This clip from a 1947 classroom does a great job showing the difference between a classroom using behaviorist thought to shape student behavior and appealing to student cognitive processes. The first half of the video, the teacher uses positive punishment on students for doing poorly by sending them to detention and negatively reinforces behavior by having students stay after school until work is completed. However, in the second half of the video, the teacher appeals to students’ cognitive processes by modeling a positive attitude and behavior towards the schoolwork.

A prospective teacher, I hope to utilize both perspectives of learning in my instruction. Understanding how to externally and internally motivate my students to perform academic tasks will be key to helping them learn. However, there are limitations to both theories. In behaviorism, some psychologists fear that the practice of positive reinforcement “will cause them (students) to lose interest in learning for its own sake” (Woolfolk, 302). This poses the question that if students are only performing educational tasks to receive a reward, are they truly learning? Behaviorism leaves teachers trying to instill intrinsic or self-motivation practices in students after rewards are no longer given. On the other hand, cognitive psychologists may find that there is too much emphasis placed on internal processes and not enough of the external circumstances such as environment or individual experiences into account.

As a future teacher, I probably agree more with the social cognitive theory proposed by Albert Bandura than I do with the behaviorist theory. I believe my job as a teacher is to be a facilitator of learning and to guide students as they apply information to the world around them to construct a base of knowledge that they can understand and relate to their life and personal experiences. As a future teacher, I hope to do exactly that by providing students with opportunities to apply learning to real-life situations around them and by creating a classroom space where students have the resources and guidance to discover their passions.


Woolfolk, A. (2014). Educational Psychology: Active Learning Edition. Pearson.


Parental Conflict and Learning

February 22nd, 2017

The brain is a funny thing. We use our brains constantly and don’t even think about it. We can walk, talk, solve math problems, and much more! But how did our brains learn that 5-3=2? Many of us learned through brute memorization and repetition that wore a neuron pathway in our brain until we could recall the fact easily. According to Anita Woolfolk, its because “the brain seeks meaningful patterns and connections with existing networks…” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 46).

However, before you learned to subtract, you had to learn to count. Without the ability to count, learning to subtract would probably have been outside of your zone of proximal development. What is the zone of proximal development? “The zone of proximal development is a phase in which a child can master a task if given the proper support” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 67). Your teacher was probably familiar with this theory by Lev Vygotsky. This theory helps teachers understand how to help students learn by providing them with support as they work to complete goals within their realm of achievement based on previous knowledge.

Strategies such as Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development are very helpful as teachers work with students to help them learn. However, there are often circumstances outside the classroom that can also affect students ability to learn, and it can sometimes be very difficult to see how these circumstances affect a student’s zone of proximal development and ability to learn. Urie Bronfenbrenner, a professor of psychology, introduced the idea of “context” as a way to understand how development and learning are shaped by factors surrounding a student.

Context is the “internal and external circumstances and situations that interact with the individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions to shape development and learning” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 86). To simplify, context acknowledges that students are a part of a bigger world around them and are affected by what goes on in their family, neighborhood, school, and world. One particular context I wanted to learn about was the role of a parent’s relationship, or lack thereof, in development. Thus, I studied a phenomenon that plagues almost half of students in today’s culture- divorce. My parents filed for divorce my junior year of high school, so this topic was of particular interest to me.

As I searched online for additional information regarding the effects of divorce on child development and found a great TedTalk by Professor Tamara Afifi. Professor Afifi discusses that there are many variables to how children cope with divorce and that children react differently. She suggests that the biggest factor of a parent’s relationship on a child is how parents, both married and divorced, handle conflict (Afifi, 2012).

Afifi conducted a studied that took saliva samples of children before and after talk about a stressful subject related to the parents’ marriage. The saliva sample were taken multiple times after the discussion and all saliva samples were tested to measure cortisol levels. Cortisol, the stress hormone, makes our heart rate increase by narrowing the arteries to our heart and raises our blood sugar levels. Parents that discussed in a competent, supportive, and affectionate way, children saw a slight increase in cortisol levels immediately after the conflict, but eventually returned to normal levels. Children of parents who were married and chronically fighting saw irregular patterns in cortisol and were unable to calm down and regulate their stress levels (Afifi, 2012). If you want to learn more about Professor Afifi’s work, the video is below.

For teachers, the book provides some helpful tips for ways to be sensitive to students who have parents with struggling relationship. Three strategies that I found the most helpful are (1) “Talk individually to students about their attitude or behavior changes, (2) Watch your language to avoid stereotypes about “happy” (two-parent) homes, and (3) Help students maintain self-esteem” (Woolfolk, 2014, p. 92).

In conclusion, it is not only important that teachers understand how the brain learns, but also how circumstances surrounding a student affect how the brain is learning.


Afifi, T.D. [TedxTalks].(2012, May, 20). The impact of divorce on children: Tamara D. Afifi at TEDxUCSB.

Woolfolk, A. (2014). Educational Psychology: Active Learning Edition. Pearson.


Research: Impacts on Teaching and Homework Practices

February 6th, 2017

For the past few weeks, my Educational Psychology class has been discussing the relationship between research and teaching. Often we don’t even think about the relationship, we just know that the two go hand in hand. However, teachers and schools can sometimes find themselves falling into routine practices instead of instituting policies based in empirical research. One of my biggest takeaways from this unit is that research can be used to inform educational policies and practices (NCTE). As one of my classmates remarked “Research provides the ‘why’ to the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ we teach in our classrooms”. Instituting research based policies could help teachers and administrators justify changes, practices, and even additional funding. Yet, often we see practices in education that lack a solid base of evidence. One of these practices is assigning students homework.

This conversation heightened when a note that a Mrs. Brandy Young sent home with students appeared on social media. Below is a picture of the note.

Dear Parents,  After much research this summer, I am trying something new. Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day. There will be no formally assigned homework this year.  Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance. Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.     Thanks,     Mrs. Brandy Young

Mrs. Brandy Young’s Homework Policy Note to Parents

This was an idea that was met well by some parents, and not so well by others. Yet, Mrs. Brandy Young may have had the correct idea. During the period of time that we discussed the pros and cons of homework in class, I engaged with quite a bit of research on the topic. Initially, I thought that more homework would improve student learning, however, after digging deeper into the topic, I was surprised by what I found.

The first article studied the relationship between a student’s attitude towards homework and their course outcomes. This study surveyed foreign language students, analyzed their final scores, and concluded that if the students perceived the homework as relevant, perceived the feedback as useful, and perceived the grading as fair, they were more likely to do well on course outcome (Chang et. al). Prior to reading this study I hadn’t considered how students attitude towards homework could impact performance.

The second article I found examined pre-existing research and reached the conclusion that “in nearly all circumstances, homework has a positive association with achievement and that this association is strongest and most positive at the secondary level” (Maltese et. al). This conclusion fit my initial stance, but I appreciated the authors clarifying that homework has the most positive effect on the secondary level.

The third article examined how well students performed on tests in the areas of English, math, science, and history. This study reached the conclusion that “we find that math homework has a large and statistically meaningful effect on math test scores throughout our sample. However, additional homework in science, English and history are shown to have little to no impact on their respective test scores” (Eren & Henderson). This contrasts sharply with the article by Maltese. However, in comparison to the article by Chang, one might call into question whether the homework administered in this study was viewed well by the student and was structured appropriately.

Lastly, the fourth article I found takes another perspective on the homework debate and analyzes whether or not students actually have a homework problem. This article analyzed time-use surveys from eight countries and reached the conclusions that American teens don’t necessarily have an excess of homework, but instead may have additional stress from all the other areas on which they spend their time (Zuzanek).

These articles challenged me to think about homework differently. As a future teacher in secondary education, I hope to implement small amounts of homework that relate directly to course outcomes. I would also like to take into account students personal situations and perhaps use a tiered model of homework- allowing students to choose from an array of assignments in order to fit their academic or time-use needs.



Chang, C. B., Wall, D., Tare, M., Golonka, E., & Vatz, K. (2014). Relationships of attitudes toward homework and time spent on homework to course outcomes: The case of foreign language learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(4), 1049-1065.

Eren, Ozkan, & Henderson, Daniel J. (2011). Are We Wasting Our Children’s Time by Giving Them More Homework? Economics of Education Review, 30(5), 950-961.

Maltese, A. V., Tai, R. H., & Xitao, F. (2012). When is Homework Worth the Time? Evaluating the Association Between Homework and Achievement in High School Science and Math. High School Journal, 96(1), 52-72.

Understanding the Relationship between Research and Teaching. (2008). Retrieved February 06, 2017.

Zuzanek, J. (2009). Students’ Study Time and Their “Homework Problem”. Social Indicators Research, 93(1), 111-115.


A Passion for Teaching

January 23rd, 2017

Hello and welcome to my blog!

My name is Marly Harmeling and I am a Business Education student at the University of Wisconsin- Whitewater. As a Business Education major, is it my hope to teach Business and Information Technology courses to high school students. I have a personal passion for Economics and would greatly enjoy sharing that passion with my future students.

In my Educational Psychology on January 19, the question was posed “What makes a good teacher?” The class listed things like “knowledgeable”, “organized”, “caring”, “funny” and, “respectful of students”, all of which I think are appropriate descriptors of a good teacher and three of these ideas were even mentioned in our textbook reading as being indicators of a good teacher (Woolfolk 560). After class, I realized I forgot to mention one of the characteristics I look for in a teacher: a passion for teaching and a passion for the subject.

Passion, as described in an article by Cagri Mart entitled “A Passionate Teacher: Teacher Commitment and Dedication to Student Learning”, refers to passion as “a strong inclination or desire towards an activity that one likes and finds important and in which one invests time and energy” (Carbonneau et. al in Mart 437). Mart sees that passionate teachers are teachers who are often more committed to the work they do, and that passionate teachers can have a profound effect on their students. Mart claims that “Passionate teachers are fiercely devoted to their work and greatly inspire their students” (Mart 438). I know this was true for me in high school.

During high school, my favorite teachers were Mrs. Gulke and Mrs. Phillip. Mrs. Gulke taught U.S. Constitution and Mrs. Phillip taught English Composition. Although they both had very different teaching styles, their passion for teaching and for the subject matter was evident. Both teachers, however, had an evident passion for their respective subjects that was contagious.

Prior to taking either of their classes, I thought the US Constitution and English Composition were boring, but their classes always had students interested and engaged in the discussion or activities of the day. In my spare time, I still enjoy writing stories or researching current legislative events. Their passion for their respective subjects and passion for teaching those subjects lead me to see the value of creative writing and the importance of the Constitution of the United States of America.

Another great example of a passionate teacher is Mr. John Keating from the movie Dead Poets Society (1989). Keating, played by Robin Williams, is an English teacher who has a passion for poetry and inspires his students to look at poetry differently. In the movie, Keating takes the time to present the material in a way that students find interesting. He uses some unconventional methods, but succeeds in engaging his students, as evidenced by the smiles and laughter in the following clip.

On the other hand, the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  (1986) is a great example of a teacher who fails to engage students. The teacher speaks in a monotone voice and offers very little opportunity for students to engage in discussion. His lecture style of teaching has students falling asleep, confused, or completely not paying attention as evidenced by the faces of the students in his classroom.

The Economics teacher example is one I find especially hard to watch, as I truly enjoy Economics. If I were in that classroom, I might begin with current events instead of delving immediately into history and would also seek to convey concepts in a manner that was applicable to the daily lives of the students. Overall, I would seek to make Economics more than just a history lesson, and instead demonstrate to students that Economics is a social science that has an impact on the lives of US citizens every day.

In conclusion, being passionate in the classroom is another important characteristic of a good teacher.


Mart, Çağrı T. “A Passionate Teacher: Teacher Commitment and Dedication to Student Learning.” International Journal of Academic Research in Progressive Education and Development 2.1 (2013): 437-42. Print.

Woolfolk, A. E. (2014).  Educational Psychology: Active Learning Edition (12th ed.). Boston: Pearson. Print.