Thinking Like a Scholar: Using Neuroscience to Address Student Stress and Disengagement

Science is rooted in experimentation, and experimentation doesn’t always yield expected outcomes. But for students in AP science classes, “unexpected outcome” is often code for “wrong answer” — which could put their ability to pass their AP exam in jeopardy.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience with the USC Rossier School of Education, has heard first-hand accounts from students of how this scenario can play out: A well-meaning teacher encourages the class to search for the “correct” lab results online, memorize the data and complete the lab trying to achieve those results. If they don’t get the data they expected, then they just copy a friend’s results and learn that for the AP test.      

“They've circumvented the actual intellectual work, which is situated in cultural, social, emotional and cognitive processes of discovery, in the interest of efficiently getting to the ‘right answer’ so that they can pass the test,” she said. “We're doing a great disservice to our kids by teaching them that this is the way a scientist, or any scholar, thinks.” 

In addition to the disengagement that comes from memorizing rather than deeply inquiring and understanding, the focus on grades and test scores is causing students debilitating stress and anxiety. Immordino-Yang believes that the current education system is designed in a way that is incompatible with adolescents’ developmental needs.

levels of student anxiety and engagement at school.

Approximately 70 percent of teens see anxiety and depression as a major problem for their peers, with more than 60 percent reporting that they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades.However, there is a steep drop in the number of students who reported feeling engaged in school as graduation approaches, decreasing from 74 percent of fifth graders to 34 percent of 12th graders.

Go to the bottom of this page for a tabular version of data on student anxiety and engagement.

What’s the remedy? Immordino-Yang suggests schools focus on agency, autonomy and social connection. She explains that this shift in focus will enable students to explore how their scholarly interests and schoolwork can contribute to who they are as people, and to who they could be in the future. Her work is showing that the patterns of thinking and feeling that teens show as they talk through their reactions to complex issues and social situations, for example, predict their brain development two years later—above and beyond standard predictors like IQ and socioeconomic status. She believes that these findings underscore the importance of youths learning not simply facts and procedures—what the “correct” biology lab data should look like—but complex and nuanced ways of applying and making meaning of what they are studying. This, she says, is how social-emotional and academic development become integrated to truly promote wellbeing, brain development and learning.

Understanding Adolescent Development 

A brief that Immordino-Yang co-authored for the Aspen Institute describes the stages of brain development throughout childhood, adolescence and adulthood. 

 “What we've now come to realize is that adolescence is a major period of brain development,” she says. “It's second only to infancy and early childhood for the amount of change that's happening in the brain at this age. And the kind of change that's happening, we had missed previously because the brain is not overall getting bigger, like it is in infancy. Instead, the patterns of connectivity around the brain, the functional networks of regions that make possible complex and abstract thoughts and emotions, are being organized.”

The Aspen brief notes that part of brain development during adolescence involves the three major brain networks that support a broad range of mental capacities:

Executive Control Network

supports sustained, flexible attention and productivity on tasks.

Default Mode Network

supports reflection, memory, and meaning making.

Salience Network

weighs emotional relevance and perceived importance of information to decipher which of the other two networks to engage.

As Immordino-Yang explains in a paper for Policy Insights From the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the Executive Control Network and the Default Mode Network can’t be activated at the same time. That means a person can’t “simultaneously devote full attention to completing one’s current tasks while also reflecting on the broader meaning of these tasks now and into the future.”

The Salience Network toggles between the two, deciding which one to activate based largely on emotions and environment, goals and preferences, and prior learning and experience.

“It's the way a person feels about how they're thinking that is turning on and off the brain development and shaping these networks to a large degree,” Immordino-Yang said, underscoring the need for students to feel physically and emotionally safe and to have a genuine feeling of social connection to their work.    

Think back to that AP biology class: Students and teachers alike fear getting the wrong answers and possibly repeating those on an exam, which encourages them to employ more task-oriented tactics like memorization of data.

“There's no … emotional connection in that,” Immordino-Yang said. “When kids are routinely engaging in these kinds of learning and assessing, what happens is either they become extremely anxious and disengaged, or they manage to crank it out and to power through it and to develop grit. They do it, but then they have no sense of purpose, no sense of interest, no idea of what they're curious about or what kind of person they are when they get out of that system.” 

The Policy Insights paper underscores this point: Schools that focus too much on task-oriented behaviors and quantitative measures of success may increase achievement in the short term, but they may undermine critical thinking, creativity, motivation and the other functions facilitated by interactions between the Default Mode and Salience Networks.

In-Classroom Examples: Use of Digital Tools

Teachers now have access to a variety of digital tools that can keep their students engaged in learning. But that doesn’t always mean they are using them correctly.

Teachers may want to be weary of push notifications that:

  • Send frequent assignment reminders.
  • Provide grades in real time.

Immordino-Yang explains that when teachers are pushing grades and deadlines that have high emotional salience to kids in real time, they could be teaching the Salience Network to pay attention and to engage the Executive Functioning Network to attend to those needs. 

“It's kind of like a zap that grabs you and hijacks your ability to enter into this deeper mode of reflection and self-connection that allows you to make meaning of it all,” she said. “It's training your brain that you have to keep watching the environment for important stuff coming in that matters to you, even though you're not sure why.”

Teachers should instead incorporate tools that help students make meaning of what they are learning. To do this, they should focus on:

Exploration

Are there gaming modules that engage students in application of what they are learning in open-ended and relevant ways that keep them interested?

Creativity

Are there design apps or programs that encourage students to use and explain what they are thinking about, rather than simply respond in a close-ended manner to a standardized question with a single answer?

Collaboration

Are there platforms that enable students to work together, even when they aren’t in the same physical spaces?

Connection

How can students use the vast resources of the online community to draw direct connections between what they are learning and current events or open problems?

Building an Education System Conducive to Adolescent Development

Beyond the use of digital tools, how can educators begin to tackle such a broad issue across the education system? Immordino-Yang has one overarching suggestion: “We need to start reimagining what it looks like to actually think like a scholar.” 

She believes secondary education needs more than a retrofitting around the edges. And teachers—who often receive very little training about development and how adolescents are changing and growing socially, cognitively and emotionally—can’t be solely responsible for redesigning the system. She points out that teachers’ brains are developing too.

“The administration of the school needs to support a culture of collaboration and safety for the teachers,” Immordino-Yang said. “When they feel like they're on the spot, like they're being judged, or like they're being constantly surprised with things, it puts them on high alert, and they also can't think deeply and purposefully about how they're doing their work. They can’t settle into the strategic, reflective and perceptive work of getting to know their students’ and their thinking.”

To help set a framework for how educators can account for their students’ developmental needs, the Aspen brief provides five suggestions:

1

Meet the physiological preconditions for optimal learning.

  • Encourage students to get sufficient sleep.
  • Provide opportunities for physical activity.
  • Reinforce emotional safety and feelings of belonging.
  • Support the cultural well-being of marginalized groups or students who don’t share the same cultural beliefs as the majority.
2

Place the learner’s emotional and social experience at the forefront.

  • Build affirming relationships with students.
  • Create classroom communities grounded in respect, with shared norms and responsibilities for all members.
  • Communicate belief in students’ abilities to take on scholarly roles, especially for students who may be threatened by stereotyping.
  • Develop personalized support systems, which can include teachers and advisors.
3

Support flexible and efficient thinking.

  • Recognize that “basic” skills do not always precede complex thinking and reasoning.
  • Help students develop conceptual understanding while they engage in hands-on learning and higher-order thinking.
  • Consider how different learning environments and activities like a bilingual classroom or a team sport can be used to improve learning.
4

Help students acquire habits of mind and character.

  • Engage students in tasks that incorporate their interests and require planning and follow-through.
  • Encourage students to exhibit and explain their thinking, gain feedback from one another, and revise their work.
  • Create a cooperative classroom where students are recognized for accomplishing their individual and collective learning goals, rather than focusing on students’ rank or grades.
  • Provide the opportunity to pursue work connected to issues and problems in the world beyond their classroom.
5

Support age-appropriate exploration and discovery.

  • For students in middle to late childhood: Develop projects that encourage students to set goals, evaluate evidence, draw conclusions and formally present their work. Projects can be done in collaboration with other students or alone and can draw on their experiences in the real world.
  • For students in early to middle adolescence: Encourage them to take on ambitious projects that they are interested in and that require investigation, critical thinking and problem-solving. Students at this age should be given the opportunity to debate ideas and reflect on what they are learning, as well as receive regular feedback.
  • For students in late adolescence and early adulthood: Provide opportunities to guide their own learning by following their passions and applying their learning in the real world through projects, internships and exhibitions, with constructive feedback.

For a more detailed explanation, read The Brain Basis for Integrated Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (PDF, 1.5 MB), co-authored by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang for the Aspen Institute.

“The role of school is to expand students’ sense of relevance and to help them see the relevance of things that they wouldn't have directly thought were important to the world they live in, like political ideologies or chemistry of water and lead content,” Immordino-Yang said. “We want to provide students opportunities to discover the skills that they need to be able to think purposefully and innovatively so that they actually build a genuine sense of efficacy around engaging with and solving world problems.”

But for students to build a sense of efficacy, they will also require something of the teachers, mentors and parents in their lives: respect and trust. 

“There’s sometimes a fear on the part of the adults that's being transmitted to the kids that our kids aren't really able to make it,” Immordino-Yang said. “We need to let go of that, step back and let our kids do the work for themselves with the love, support and deep engagement of the adults around them.”

Simple Ways to Implement These Lessons

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Asking students to memorize and regurgitate information. Encouraging students to work through their mental process out loud.
Providing assignments that have one correct answer. Offering open-ended questions that enable students to think through multiple answers.
Keeping lessons focused on what’s on the test. Encouraging journaling or other forms of reflection that allow students to connect lessons together into a bigger picture.
Using grades as the definitive assessment metric. Allowing students to reengage with work until they show sufficient understanding by offering options such as retests.
Micromanaging the classroom with seating charts and assigned groups. Pushing for collaborative assignments that allow students to work and explore together.
Using tools like real-time notifications to provide grades and reminders. Giving students the space and trust to set their schedules.

The following section includes tabular data from the graphic in this post.

Student Engagement and Anxiety

Percentage of Teens Who See Anxiety and Depression as a Problem Among Peers

Percentage of Teens Who See Anxiety and Depression as a Problem Among Peers
Level of Severity Percentage of Teens
Major problem 70%
Minor problem 26%
Not a problem 4%

Source: “Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety and Depression as a Major Problem Among Their Peers,” Pew Research Center, February 2019.

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Percentage of Teens Who Feel Pressure to Get Good Grades

Percentage of Teens Who See Anxiety and Depression as a Problem Among Peers
Amount of Pressure Percentage of Teens
A lot 61%
Some 27%
Not too much 8%
None at all 4%

Source: “Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety and Depression as a Major Problem Among Their Peers,” Pew Research Center, February 2019.

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Percentage of Students Who Feel Engaged at School, by Grade

Percentage of Teens Who See Anxiety and Depression as a Problem Among Peers
Grade Percentage of Students
Fifth 74%
Sixth 67%
Seventh 54%
Eighth 45%
Ninth 40%
Tenth 33%
Eleventh 32%
Twelfth 34%

Source: “Student Enthusiasm Falls as High School Graduation Nears,” Gallup, June 1, 2017.

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Citation for this content: The USC Rossier MAT online program.