Whole-brain Teaching Strategies for the Diverse College Classroom

Brain with question marks behind it

“I am not stupid,” he says emphatically at the beginning of the tutoring session. The first time a declaration along similar lines was made by a student visiting the writing studio, I was taken aback. “Of course, not,” I answered. “What makes you think that?”

“Back home,” he says,” I was my father’s right-hand man in his contracting business. I solved everyone’s problems. Now, I am falling behind in my classes. I do not understand how to do assignments.” His voice rises, “I know nothing!”

The consideration that one lacks the necessary intelligence for proceeding with initiative is usually the beginning of a downward trajectory. Lately, this sort of scenario has begun to repeat itself more frequently, specifically with non-traditional students. In fact, the adjective “non-traditional” is fast becoming a misnomer, as non-traditional students become the “new majority,” accounting for more than 71% of all students in postsecondary education in the United States; however, 67% of non-traditional students drop out before degree completion, stressing the need for more intentional and targeted instructional strategies to address the issue (MacDonald, 2018; Riccardo, 2022). As educators in the field of higher education today, we are led towards several questions, the most important of which is: Is there a failure to understand the crucial and circular cause-effect relationship between emotions, cognition, and academic success?

The link is by no means a recent discovery, as Plato once wrote, “All learning is emotional.” Until the twentieth century, the connection between emotions, cognition, and learning was considered more suitable for a philosophical debate (Okon-Singer et al., 2015). The advent of brain mapping through imaging seemed to further bifurcate brain functions, seeing the limbic system as diametrically opposed to the prefrontal cortex (Meacham, 2014). Emotions were considered “an additional variable” indicating “irrational aspects” of the human brain not relevant to cognitive functions of the brain (Zhao & Song, 2022, p. 1). Recent neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), electroencephalography (EEG), and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) have brought into clearer focus the architecture and functioning of the brain and have established a more symbiotic relationship between its anatomical parts of the brain. Hemispheric lateralization is clearly a misconception (Tyng et al, 2017).

Progressing beyond theory, practical implications of the interconnectedness of the brain emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The concept of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to strengthen neural pathways and master difficult tasks through sustained practice—had been steadily evolving since the end of the 1900s and forms the basis of many influential theories of learning today (Ackerman, 2022). Carol Dweck’s research on a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset; Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy as intrinsically connected to a student’s academic success; and the more recent findings by Stanford’s neuroscientist Andrew Huberman (2021) who highlighted the synergistic nature of the entire brain by tracing the complex pathway of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for reward expectation and motivation to proceed towards the reward. The common factor of crucial importance in the above theories of learning is that cognition and intelligence were malleable as affected by emotional states. Certain emotional states invited motivational sustained effort, while others led to relinquishment of effort.

Clearly, the rules of engagement must change for both educators and students in the current demographics of enrollment in higher education. Whole brain teaching—understanding the crucial role of emotion in academic learning—presages a paradigm shift in pedagogical practices. Empathy, encouragement, confidence-building, and motivation as teaching strategies must be integrated into the lexicon of teaching as clear syllabi, formative and summative assignments, interactive and engaging class activities, and assignments focused on professional development. Verbal, written, and non-verbal communication must focus on encouragement to counter damaging self-concepts of limitations that non-traditional students come with, or develop shortly after entering the field of higher education in the United States.

This does not suggest handholding, developing a psychic sense, or grade inflation. Several effective pedagogical strategies have been proffered by established research based on human psychology, the architecture of the brain, and their synergy with effective learning. For example, findings from Carol Dwek’s research emphasized that a mindset focused on the brain’s ability to grow with repeated effort was a stronger predictor of ongoing academic success than a belief in the high level of one’s innate intelligence. These opposing mindsets created “different psychological worlds” (Dweck, 2008). Students in the latter group would see mistakes and failures as a demoralizing reflection of their limited ability and as a signal to give up. On the other hand, students who had a growth mindset would make “a plan of positive action” to “remedy the deficiency.” Dweck found that feedback, even that of a positive nature, did not necessarily encourage sustained effort through obstacles. Feedback that praised inherent ability, for example, “Good work! You are so intelligent,” led to decreased motivation to undertake challenging tasks. Even more damagingly, it created demoralizing stereotypical associations of higher intelligence limited to certain ethnic groups (Armstrong, 2019).  On the other hand, feedback that focused on a student’s efforts such as, “Good Work! You must have worked very hard,” created self-confidence and self-reliance in the ability to put in the required effort (Dweck, 2008).

Dweck’s growth mindset principle can be a potent tool in preventing a defeatist mindset in students, especially non-traditional students who feel impeded by factors such as a lack of academic skill, or even language proficiency in the case of immigrant students. Reiterating that failing at something may not indicate a terminal lack of innate ability but most likely a need for focused strategy applied over time can help an educator open up a realistic and pragmatic pathway for a non-traditional student who sees themself at an impassable block.

An analogous cognitive mechanism was offered by Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy (1977). An “efficacy expectation” was the “conviction that one [could] successfully execute the behavior required to produce the outcomes” for a specific task (Bandura, 1977, p. 193). Bandura did not see self-efficacy as an all-pervading sense of confidence, but as task specific, thus bringing it within credible and applicable bounds (Artino, 2012). Perceptions of self-efficacy determined the choice of activities as well as the level of effort and persistence an individual was willing to expend towards goal attainment, which on a practical level, was more often than not a recipe for goal attainment. “The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the more active the efforts,” wrote Bandura (1977, p. 194).

Additionally, Bandura mapped out four channels for successfully fostering self-efficacy, all of which can be seen as applicable in a classroom:

  1. Reflecting on successful or “mastery experiences” with enhanced feelings of self-efficacy
  2. “Vicarious experiences,” another channel for encouraging feelings of self-efficacy, where those in which attention was directed towards success was achieved by others with a comparable level of skill
  3. Encouraging or complimentary remarks about one’s ability is directed at maintaining effort by “significant others’” solidified self-perceptions of capability
  4. One’s affective or emotional state in response to a situation could encourage or stultify feelings of self-efficacy

More recently, Andrew Huberman, Stanford University neuroscientist, has brought attention to dopamine pathways that begin in the midbrain—considered to be the seat of emotions—and traverse through the pre-frontal cortex—understood at present to be the seat of higher cognitive functions such as reasoning, learning, reflection, and problem solving. This finding leans toward establishing the correlative—perhaps causative—nature of emotions and pursuant action (Huberman Lab Podcast # 39, 2021). It also provides evidence for Bandura’s emphasis on self-efficacy. Focused and purposeful attention to task, however, is most effective when the brain is in “top-down mode,” with analytic and reasoning functions of the neocortex in primacy. Nguyen (2020) calls this cognitive state “a voluntary, sustained, goal-driven process” (par. 6). Strong emotion resulting from stress, feelings of failure, or being overwhelmed, put the brain into a “bottom-up” mode so that a reactive fight-flight-freeze mechanism from the midbrain stultifies the analytic functions of the neocortex and misdirects attention from the task at hand (Nguyen, 2020). As Tyng et al. (2017) state, “emotional stimuli appear to consume more attentional resources than non-emotional stimuli” (p. 2). However, both Bandura and Huberman have noted that tasks should be moderately challenging, and there must be some stress that spurs effort but is not high enough to create “bottom-up” thinking.

The above research studies suggest several effective strategies for sidestepping the kind of sinkhole regarding one’s abilities that we saw at the beginning of the article. Some suggestions follow.

  1. Be sensitive to the impact of both verbal and non-verbal communication. For students that are already experiencing a crisis in self-confidence, micro expressions and body language can send a message that confuses well-meaning verbal messages.
  2. Parse your written and spoken remarks to assess their emotional connotations. Feedback can be modulated to create encouragement and motivation, or conversely, to discourage effort. For example, during interviews I conducted for a doctoral research study to assess how non-traditional students (first-generation immigrant students, in particular) perceived feedback from support personnel in a higher education institution, some students reported that remarks such as “in this country, we do (or do not) do it this way” were seen as belittling and alienating. Any verbal or written communication, intentional or inadvertent, that diminishes “people’s judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances” (Bandura, 1986), will deter meaningful effort.
  3. Encourage a growth mindset by praising effort. Motivating a student to persist despite previous failures can enhance the chances of eventual success. Carol Dweck suggests the following approach: “You really stuck to that until you got it. That’s wonderful!”
  4. Help students practice “cognitive reappraisal” (Cutuli, 2014) by seeing a possible negative situation in a different way so the emotions attached to it change accordingly. For example, after receiving a failing grade in an exam, an instructor can help a student understand that a failing grade is not an indication of a lack of ability. Instead, the student’s focus should be redirected from being emotionally overwhelmed by feelings of failure or catastrophizing, to an analysis of the reasons for the low grade and practical steps to offset low performance. The following remark exemplifies this approach: “This   was certainly a difficult test, and I appreciate the fact that you answered all the questions. See if you can make time to attend my after-class tutoring sessions for one-on-one help with math.” The student can also be guided towards making a numbered list of practical steps for a better result in the future. (For example, set aside 30-minutes daily to read over concepts covered in class, join a study group, tune into virtual after-class tutoring sessions, and so on.)
  5. Scaffold learning activities that build knowledge incrementally and enable students to connect new knowledge with knowledge already attained. As students gain mastery and achieve a level of self-confidence through successful learning activities appropriate for their skill level, more difficult activities can be introduced. Additionally, more guidance and support can be provided by the instructor earlier in the process and gradually decreased as skill level of the student increases. Scaffolding can better prepare a struggling student for summative assignments later on in the course.
  6. Communicate with students about interpreting instructor feedback. While ostensibly having the sole purpose of improving a student’s academic performance, instructor feedback can have unintended consequences and leave a student discouraged and demoralized. Torres and Anguiano (2016) point out that an instructor’s indication of errors in student assignments may be directed towards avoiding the same in upcoming projects, but since connotations are deciphered via one’s “personal history, social setting, culture” and existing sense of identity, the student may have a “competing interpretation” (p. 3). Encouraging open dialogue can resolve the gap and create an emotional climate more conducive to academic progress.
  7. Use multimodal teaching strategies to give students options on comprehending and retaining information. For example, using visual modalities such as videos, diagrams, PowerPoints, and images in addition to verbal and written content not only stimulates higher order thinking skills but also expands students’ options for comprehending and retaining material.
  8. Work towards establishing a collaborative network across campus student support services and peer groups. Even the most effective and best-intentioned instructor may not be able to provide all necessary resources to struggling students. An instructor can facilitate access for students by introducing them to support resources such as the writing studio, the student services center, academic advisors, veteran affairs coordinator, student study groups, student organizations for on-campus extra-curricular activities, and other services the institution offers.  

Obviously, the student mentioned at the beginning of this article was struggling against a stressed out, bottom-up mode of thinking. The primary factor to address is the external stimuli that contributed to this internal state. Neurobiologist Andrew Huberman has called the adaptive and transformative ability of the human brain the factor that has made humans “the curators of the planet and the species in charge” (2021). As educators, we can harness this ability and encourage more effective learning.

Noorina Mirza, EdD, has taught English composition at Nova Southeastern University since 2008 and has been a writing studio coordinator at Keiser University since 2017. Mirza’s dissertation is focused on creating an emotionally receptive environment for disadvantaged students and has found the strategies mentioned in this article to be highly effective in their own teaching and tutoring practice with students.


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