What we know: Teaching for learning: Brains can be ‘rewired’ to improve learning

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

Brains can be ‘rewired’ to improve learning

What do we know?

The brain does not simply record information as it arrives.  Instead, the brain reorganizes information for more efficient recall and later use.  The structure of information in the brain is one of the primary features that distinguishes “novices” from “experts.” In the past 20 years, there has been an explosion of studies showing just how adaptable and malleable the human brain is and the previously held belief that the structure of the human brain does not change much after infancy is wrong.


Implications for improving student learning

This new knowledge regarding brain development and learning implies new responsibilities to continually “exercise” and nurture the brain.  Educational institutions and teachers are faced with the responsibility of designing curricula and learning experiences that will stimulate and guide ‘re-wiring’ in student brains.  Meanwhile, students bear responsibility for nurturing and engaging their brains during this important developmental process. Identifying students’ prior knowledge before proceeding can also be an especially helpful technique.  One teacher found that 70% of what he was about to teach was already known by the students. He therefore focused the majority of available time on the 30%. This leads nicely into the subject of course design.


Further reading

Zull, James Ellwood (2002) The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing

First Evidence of Brain Rewiring in Children: Reading Remediation Positively Alters Brain Tissue, Science Daily, Dec. 10, 2009 available at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091209121200.htm 


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About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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