How to Ignite Students’ Learning Using Brain-Based Principles

by Jessica Mansbach

What is brain-based learning and why do we care about it?

With advances in brain imaging technologies and ongoing developments in cognitive research, there is a great deal of information available about how the brain works (Davis, 2008). Knowledge about how the brain integrates new information enables instructors to design courses that incorporate principles of brain-based learning (Clemons, 2005). Brain-based learning involves the use of  “instructional strategies designed for compatibility with the brain’s propensities for seeking, processing, and organizing information”  (Kelly, 2013, para. 3). The handy acronym IGNITE (intervals, grouping, novelty, interconnectedness, technology and time, environment) describes how to activate brain-based learning (Kelly, 2013).  

How do you IGNITE brain-based learning?


Brains contain billions of nerve cells, or neurons, that fire signals using chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. Learning occurs when cells that communicate information about what is being learned get more efficient at sending signals back and forth, which forms strong connections among neurons (Learning Rewires the Brain). Cognitive science research demonstrates that after about twenty minutes of learning, neurons fatigue. To restart learning, the brain needs at least a two to three minute break to return to a state of alertness. Students, then, should take breaks after about twenty minutes of highly concentrated focus in order to wake up the neurons again (Kelly, 2013). Instructors should switch back and forth between different types of teaching strategies, such as lecture and discussion, to give students’ brains the opportunity to take in and organize new information (Davis, 2008).


When information is organized into small chunks or groups, brains can digest the information more efficiently. When outlining tasks or instructions, group them into sets of three or five, and be sure that there is some blank space between each of the groups. The blank space allows the brain to more easily take in the grouped information (Kelly, 2013). Logically organizing information in groups, as opposed to presenting solitary and decontextualized information, fills the brain’s need to form patterns and make meaning out of information (Davis, 2008).


Instructors strive to maintain students’ interest in course content and design interesting and innovative learning experiences. In addition to maintaining students’ attention, building creativity into the learning experience aligns with the idea that the brain will take in new information more readily if there is an element of surprise included (Adams, 2013). When students lose interest in course content, they are more likely to ignore it. One way to maintain students’ interest and spark their engagement is to pose a different question about course content each week. Raising a question that is both relevant to students’ live and to the course content may help keep the brain engaged and alert.


Several instructional design theories point out the importance of helping students make connections between new knowledge and already existing knowledge (Kelly, 2013). When unfamiliar information is presented, neurotransmitters send messages across the synapses, or spaces, between neurons. Neurons have dendrites, or treelike structures. When messages are sent back and forth, new dendrites form by attaching themselves to old dendrites. When new dendrites are formed, learning happens. But if the new knowledge does not have any place to attach itself, it likely will not stick (Davis, 2008). Using strategies like reviewing older content when introducing newer content, or asking students to discuss how a new idea relates to an old idea, are ways to ensure that new knowledge links to old knowledge.

Technology and Time

If the brain does not have enough time to take in and organize new material, students may be less likely to learn it (Kelly, 2013). Given the time needed to process information, being mindful of timing and pacing of course elements like assignments is particularly important. Instead of assigning a big project at once, it might be a good idea to break the project up into smaller pieces so that students have time to absorb new content and look carefully at assignment instructions.


If the brain senses threat or danger, learning may slow or stop so that the brain can devote its attention to responding to the threat. When it experiences stress or a threat, the brain loses its ability to engage in complex thinking and may regress to very primitive levels of functioning. Creating a classroom community where students feel safe and respected and demonstrating sensitivity to students who express concerns or describe challenges is crucial. Any actions that can be taken to create a calm and orderly environment for learning helps the brain more easily take in new information (Davis, 2008; Kelly, 2013).

Pulling It All Together

Given the advances in the field of cognitive science that shed light on how the brain learns, instructors can begin to use this knowledge in course design and teaching. Incorporating principles of brain-based learning by designing learning experiences that reflect how the brain learns may result in better student learning.


Adams, C. (2013). Teachers Urged To Mix It Up and Use Novelty to Engage Students. Retrieved from

Clemons, S. A. (2005). Brain-based learning: Possible implications for online instruction. International Journal of Instructional Technology and distance learning, 2(9), 25-34.

Davis,  D. (2008) Brain Friendly Environment for Learning. Retrieved from

Kelly, R. (2013). Brain Based Online Learning Design Retrieved from

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