As a teacher, it always surprises me that I wasn’t encouraged to learn more about how the brain functions.  

I went to an excellent program for teaching at the School for International Training and I learned all kinds of things about teaching methods, intercultural interactions and linguistics. They had a very brain friendly curriculum that included a lot of experiential learning techniques that they not only explained but actively implemented in almost every lesson.  We did not however specifically study the brain and how it functions.  I have since become fascinated by the topic!  The brain is amazing, complex and ever changing in each and every one of us and we use it every minute of every day, yet we often do not take care of it so it can function at it’s peak.  In fact, we actually do things while we are trying to learn that work against our brains and we don’t take advantage of the way our brains are set up that do help us learn.  Understanding the brain helps me to be both a better teacher and a better learner and it is a lot of fun too!


1. Exercise

I once had a disagreement with a colleague in Turkey. Her son was going to cram school to study for his university entrance exams and had given up all of his extra curricular activities including his first love, football/soccer. I expressed concern that this was counterproductive but she insisted that he simply did not have time to play soccer if he wanted to get into a good university. It turns out that while he probably shouldn’t be devoting 3 or 4 hours a day to football, by cutting it out of his life completely, he was actually making his chances of succeeding on those exams worse.

Exercise is great at making us think better! We are simply better able to learn when we have more blood moving around in our brains. We were never meant to sit still all day at a desk, we were meant to move! Blood delivers more oxygen and calories to the brain, serving 2 functions. First, More calories in the brain means more thinking can be doneMore oxygen/carbon dioxide exchanged means more of the waste products produced by all of that thinking can be cleaned out of the system making it easier to think clearly.

How much is OK?
Well, research claims that just 30 minutes of cardio 2 or 3 days a week is enough to significantly boost your thinking power.

When is the best time to exercise?
Before you sit down to study is the best time, it will make your study time more efficient and productive, so go ahead, get your body moving! If you are stuck with something while you are studying, get up and start moving your body, ride a stationary bike, walk around the neighborhood. Take a pen and paper with you or a recording device to capture all of those brilliant ideas as they come to you. Don’t worry, your desk will be ready and waiting for you when you come back.


2. Sleep!

Naps are truly one of the most under appreciated and utilized study tools ever. Parents of young children know how important naps are for the little ones but we don’t take them ourselves. I know when my daughter was little, I would insist that she take naps but I would rarely take one with her, too much to do. That meant that for several years there, I was chronically sleep deprived and I could feel my ability to think slipping away. This was distressing on many different levels but instead of sleeping more, I tried to work harder. I should have just given myself a break and taken more naps!

Now I watch my students struggle to stay awake through class even during active and engaging activities.  A colleague of mine even had a student fall asleep while standing up talking to another student he was so tired.  I work in Japan and many students have jobs that keep them up until the middle of the night, they also had long commutes and various club activities.  The fact that they are in class at all seems heroic but sadly the effort is wasted.  If their brains are not rested and ready to learn, they will not get much out of being there physically. 

Unfortunately our schedules just do not allow us to sleep whenever we feel like it but we can be a aware of how important it is and give our brains the sleep they need. By making sleep a priority, as important as work and study, we will be ensuring that we do a better job at everything we put our minds to.  By the way, you don’t have to feel guilty that you are resting too much, your brain is not resting at all while you are sleeping, it is in fact, very active!  

For more information about how important sleep is, check out these TED talks.
Jeff Iliff: One more reason to get a good night’s sleep

Arianna Huffington: How to succeed? Get more sleep

3. Don’t be Bored

​You can’t learn if you are bored, that is a fact. You must be interested in something to stay focused so, sit down and brainstorm things that hold your attention. This could be anything from soap operas to riding a bicycle to heavy metal music to fine art. Whatever it is, language has you covered.

​Do a little research into what the language you are studying has to offer in that area. Then think about the words you use all the time when you are engaging in whatever it is that you love to do or think about. Figure out how to say those words in your target language. Maybe make a collage of those words that you can look at every day to inspire you. Create a special notebook with things that you find relating to that topic in your chosen language, get creative and make your notebook something really cool.

Too often I see language get turned into a series of grammar worksheets and vocabulary lists that are, let’s face it, boring.  There is no need for this at all!  Language is about communication, so why not communicate about something fascinating? Share your love of whatever with anyone who will listen, you are bound to be more interesting talking about something you like, in no matter what verb tense you are focusing on.

4.  Eat Good Food


​You can’t study effectively if you are hungry. I can’t tell you the number of times I have looked out at my students and seen them trying to study through the hunger. Half of their minds are on where and when their next meal is coming from. Save yourself this agony by bringing a nice healthy snack  to eat before class or before hitting the library. This should not be a candy bar but rather something that will pick you up and keep you going like nuts, veggies or a beef jerky. Something that will nourish, not just give a sugar rush.   You might be tempted to grab a bag of chips and a soda but that will not help your brain to learn all of those new vocabulary words you want it to learn. The brain, just like all the other organs in your body, needs good fuel to operate well.

One fun way to learn a language is to get into it’s food.  Find some recipes from the land(s) of your target language, preferably in that language and learn the words for the foods while you are shopping for and preparing them. This will help you build your vocabulary and your interest in the culture(s) attached to your chosen language.  If you bring your creations to class and share them, you are guaranteed to have your choice of conversation partners too!  


5. Meditate

Too much stress can kill learning and it is bad for the brain. This is why so many people, me included, freeze up during high-stakes (and even not so high-stakes) testing.  Meditation can bring your stress levels under control as well as help you to control how you react to certain stress-inducing situations.

Many educational institutions regularly put students into stress-inducing situations. Take the TOEFL and EILTS exams for example. You get to sit in a well-lit room with hundreds of other test takers for about 2 hours of intense test taking. Many people in the room are desperate to get a high score on these tests so they can fulfill their dreams of studying abroad or getting/keeping a job. This ensures that at the beginning of the test, the listening section, everyone is riding on an adrenaline high (this can be good as it keeps them alert but it is exhausting). Minds are racing and this can make it difficult to focus on the audio and all of those wonderful strategies they learned about test-taking.

Then the adrenaline wears off because nothing exciting is happening, everyone is just sitting in chairs taking a test so by the time the reading section comes around, everyone is tired. All of the oxygen in the room has seemingly already been breathed so no-one is  feeling their best by now and in spite of the presence of hundreds of other people, it is deathly quiet. Perfect for taking a little nap! Then 30 minutes later the test is over and half of the readings remain unread. If there ever was a situation where it would be helpful to be able to regulate stress levels, this is it.

This article outlines the academic benefits of meditation
​How to Overcome Exam Fear
This TED talk explains the importance of meditation
Andy Puddicombe: All it takes is 10 mindful minutes

6. Talk about What you are Learning


Whenever you repeat something it reviews it in your mind and makes the memory of it stronger. Maybe mom was on to something when she asked us every day after school what my brother and I learned. I suspect that is how we convince ourselves of untruths too.  If you say something often enough, it becomes true (at least in your mind it does). This can be great for learning without studying!

​If you want to remember something tell people about it. Call up your best friend and your mom to tell them what you just learned. Tell your significant other over dinner, tweet about it or post it on your facebook feed. When you learn something cool, tell the world, preferably one at a time, repeat it, repeat it, repeat it and soon it will be yours to have and to hold (in your brain).


7. Use Smell to Trigger Memory

​This is one of the stranger brain quirks.  Memory and the sense of smell are closely related. That is why, to this day whenever I smell a certain cologne I remember a certain ex boyfriend. For more information about why this happens, check out this post from Psychology Today. 

​Whenever you are going to study something it is a good idea to have a scent to trigger those memories. If you are working on studying a language, you could have a special language smell. Pick something that you love and that is easy to apply right before class or before you are going to study or take a test. If you are studying to take a special test like the TOEFL or EILTS, get yourself a bit of perfume or scented lotion just for that exam and use it every time you study for it.  Then, a few minutes before the exam starts, put some on and help your brain remember what you studied. 

8.  Regulate your Mood with Music

If you are feeling stressed, tired, or just don’t feel like studying, use music to elevate your mood. According to Psychology Today, listening to music can affect how we perceive things. Sometimes just putting your favorite song on can make you feel better and change your outlook. If it is becoming hard to force yourself to sit down and do what you have to do, put on something nice and relaxing and feel those knots fall out of your neck and shoulders, or put on whatever inspires you.  

​Music can be very motivational, that is why we put it on while we work out or do chores around the house.  I know I use it when I have a huge stack of essays to grade and I want to be fair to all of my students, not just the ones who wrote the first 5 essays.  Music keeps me from getting irritated with having to give the same feedback on many different essays and instead I stay happy and upbeat.  I pick music without words because words distract me.  

9. Get Curious

I know that as language teachers and learners, there is so much to “cover” in class, it is difficult to make time to study the brain as well, but taking a few minutes each day to keep our brains happy, will make it much easier to learn.  Learning and teaching are about using our brains so, just as athletes take great care of their bodies so they can perform better, we learners need to take great care of our brains so we can think and remember better.  A side bonus for doing this is that we will feel better too!

What do you do to take care of your brain?  How do you teach your students how to take care of theirs? 

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