Johns Hopkins University Uses Neuroscience to Improve Faculty Engagement

We know that the way people learn often differs from the way people teach. How can teachers improve learning engagement using what we know about neuroscience?

Dr. Mariale Hardiman, Professor and Director of the Neuro-Education Initiative and currently serving for the last five years as Vice Dean of Academic Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss how higher ed should be better utilizing neuroscience and cognitive best practices to improve faculty engagement.

The Neuro-Education Initiative

“Around 2004, I published my first book,” Dr. Hardiman told us. “I was a school principal then, and the book was called Connecting Brain Research With Effective Teaching.”

Her book described an instructional framework she called the Brain Targeted Teaching Model. It got a lot of attention because it was a way of translating for teachers some of the knowledge coming from the learning sciences; cognitive science, neuroscience, neuropsychology.

The book helped move some of that research that could inform educational practice into academic and professional development programs. Dr. Hardiman’s goal with the book was to link that research base to practitioners by making that research accessible to educators.

Why Faculty Needs Training in Cognitive Best Practices

In terms of measuring learning, we focus on what we’re teaching, but we’ve not focused enough in the field of education, whether it’s in the K-12 or the higher ed arenas, on the learner. How is that individual in front of us learning?

“This work is really about focusing on the learner,” Dr. Hardiman told us, “and learning more about the learning process itself.”

How do we apply information, and how do we retain it? How do we use it meaningfully? That’s the purpose of what we do. As educators, we want knowledge for the world. But we want more than pure content. We’ve also got to take into account how learning happens and do our best to match what we know about that with how we impart learning in our classrooms.

Academic Benefits of Integrating the Arts Across All Disciplines

After implementing the Brain Targeted Teaching Model to include the arts in every learning unit as a school principal, Dr. Hardiman saw the effectiveness of the approach.  

“I started to become really interested in how the cognitive processes of memory, and linking in what we’re learning about memory, how would the arts mediate that,” she told us. “When I came to Hopkins as a professor, I was able to receive funding … to conduct something that hadn’t been done before, and that was a randomized control trial.”

Dr. Hardiman and her team wrote curriculum and matched it across the four science units. The treatment was arts integrated curriculum, and the control was traditional. Every group of students received one content in one condition such as arts integration in the astronomy unit and then with a different teacher in chemistry and then in the control or the traditional.

“What we found across two studies that I did, was that students benefited in long-term retention,” Dr. Hardiman said. “We tested post-test, and then tested again 10 weeks later, and they retained more information when they were in the arts condition. But we also found something really interesting across both studies, and that was that students who struggled the most with learning benefited the most from arts integration.”

How can instructors integrate the arts into programs and courses that are decidedly non-artsy?

“I would urge everybody just to think of a simple activity that’s artistic that you would use to maybe teach some content,” Dr. Hardiman said, “or very simply, offer choices in how your students are going to demonstrate their knowledge.”

Some might really love writing that term paper, and so that’s what you do. But you can open it up and ask them to think of other ways of demonstrating the content or the concept that you need to assess. It could be through writing a play or putting on some dramatic production. It could be through crafting a visual presentation.

“My guess is that they will remember that better than the typical research paper that they’re writing,” Dr. Hardiman said.

Next-Steps Advice for Institutions Using Neuroscience to Improve Faculty Engagement

There’s so much more information and acceptance now that science can inform what we do in classrooms. A new term coming out is neuro-diversity, the idea that the students in front of us are diverse learners who can express their thoughts in different ways. And the arts are a perfect way to do that.

“There’s so many, now, ways to do it,” Dr. Hardiman said, “We are designing an online professional development for faculty and K-12 teachers that will be available soon. And what we’ll be doing is focusing on those concepts that are really important for instructors to know. For example, how emotions affect learning.”

The research that’s already been done can help instructors know more about how their students learn and match their teaching to getting the best out of all of their students.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Mariale Hardiman from Johns Hopkins University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.

Eric Olsen

Eric brings more than a decade of award-winning creative brand development, marketing analytics and higher education experience to Helix Education. Eric is a graduate of Bradley University and earned his MBA at Lewis University.