The Science of Students’ Brains: 15 Minutes with Terry Doyle

To understand how students learn, the first step is recognizing that teaching isn’t any different from other human-to-human interactions.

For the latest installment of our interview series, we met up with Terry Doyle at this month’s Lilly Conference in Asheville, North Carolina, where Doyle delivered a plenary presentation titled, “Understanding How Students Learn: The First Step to Improving College Teaching Practices.” Doyle is an author, educational consultant, and professor emeritus at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. His books include The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain, written with Todd Zakrajsek, and Learner-Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning into Practice. Our conversation focused on brain science, teaching, and learning connections Doyle discussed at the conference.


Sign up for The ‘Q’ Newsletter for the latest news and insights about higher education teaching and learning.


Terry Doyle 2016 Lilly Conference

What should instructors do to maximize ways to apply what we know about brain science to their students’ learning?

Whether or not you are new at teaching, the first thing to recognize is that teaching isn’t any different than any other human-to-human interaction. If you don’t value and respect your students, if you don’t treat them well, then the whole basis of what you’re trying to do is eroded before you get started. I think sometimes we lose track of that by becoming too authoritative or demanding. We lose track of what it’s like to be a student.

Beyond that I think there’s a responsibility for instructors to read the research and not just to go about their business. When you read the research, you start discovering there are things that you can apply very easily to your teaching. One thing is paying more attention to multiple sensory processes. Students learn through different senses, which means they also connect to prior knowledge through all of those senses, even smell. So we should be teaching students with these types of things in mind—not only to teach that way but to tell students “When you’re studying, you want to engage different senses. You want to write and read it as well as to think and talk about it.”


See also: The Prose of Participation: 15 Minutes with Julie Schrock and Steven Benko


In your work and conversations with instructors around the country, what are some of the common challenges they raise to you? What are some challenges that you’ve experienced yourself?

The question I always get is “What do I do with the range of developmental abilities in the classroom?” There’s never been a good answer to that because you have a wide range of prior knowledge, skill, and abilities. One approach I’ve taught is the mastery learning model. This means that every single student had to reach a certain level of proficiency, but they had multiple opportunities to get to the targeted level. Students with a range of abilities had different opportunities to achieve success because they had more chances to study, and restudy, and retry. But it also forced them to do the work.

I think another big thing to recognize is that the brain always operates in patterns. Always. Therefore, if you teach to the patterns that the students know, and you teach the patterns of your subject matter, you’re in harmony with how the human brain functions. The brain looks for organization, it looks for way to relate to the subject matter. That’s why prior knowledge, and fixing deficits of prior knowledge, is also such a big issue. Because if I really don’t know my algebra, you can’t teach me algebra-based physics. It isn’t going to work. It’s just not going to happen. So I think that understanding how we take in and process and retrieve information is important. In other words, how are memories made, and what do we do as teachers to provide ideal situations in class that help the formation, the understanding, and the practice?

On the topic of helping students with the patterns that are familiar to them, can you recommend strategies that instructors can use to better understand what those patterns are?

We have always taught cognitive mapping in our reading classes because we wanted to help students see how ideas and concepts fit together. We were trying to teach the relationships between these ideas: Do you see the connections between the ideas of what you’re reading? Do they have anything in common? What were the big differences? Do they overlap on another position?

When you have to draw that out visually, it forces you to look at it in a different way, so it was one of the skills that we always included.

Do you have strategies that instructors can use to identify patterns for students who are from different cultures and educational backgrounds?

I think one thing that is effective for international students—all students, in fact—is to ask them to put each course concept into their own language. This requires students to show that they understand what it is. For international students, this could include translating the concept into their own language. In all cases, they can actually give you an example of what it is, how to use it, or how to solve a problem with it. It’s the ultimate metacognitive question, the ultimate assessment question. Students are forced to become aware of whether they really understand. Otherwise, you can memorize a definition without having any understanding of what that definition actually means.

In User’s Guide to the Brain, Ratey (2001) stated “[T]he brain is a pattern seeking device that relates whole concepts to one another and looks for similarities and differences, or relationships between them.” This pattern seeking process is at the heart of all our learning.. That is a really effective teaching model, to keep talking about how “This is similar to what we learned yesterday” or “Here’s what’s different about what we’ve learned so far.” It’s a very highly organized, patterned approach to seeing how things fit together. In its basic form, teaching is trying to connect new information to prior knowledge that is similar to what the learner already knows and pointing out when new information differs from what is known and how that difference may change our understanding of a subject, idea, etc.

What’s something that you’ve recently learned about brain science and learning that’s exciting?

The biggest thing is the amount of research going into human sleep. Sleep deprivation interferes with learning in big ways. From a learning standpoint, I’m convinced that schools and parents and students must get on board with understanding how important sleep is in all aspects of learning. Even with all of the approaches around active learning and learner-centered activities, you can’t teach tired brains.


Sign up for the Community of Professional Practice for more news, stories, and insights from the world of teaching and learning.


One thought on “The Science of Students’ Brains: 15 Minutes with Terry Doyle”

  1. I find the concept of the brain thinking in patterns to be very intriguing and relevant as we begin plans for the fall semester. I also find the idea of prior knowledge interesting. It has me wondering how often I assume students come to me already knowing and understanding a key concept that they may or may not have prior experience with. I think my next step would be to create a non-graded “prior knowledge” assessment so I can gain a better understanding of what my students already know and, more to the point, what they don’t know. Being equipped with that information early in the semester should help to make instruction much more efficient as I can meet students where their needs are and build from there. Thank you for the idea!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.