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Skip to 0 minutes and 16 seconds This week we’ll look at the reward system, neuro modulators, and emotions. All these relate to engagement in the brain. The science of when we do and don’t engage for the situation reveals the involvement of those subcortical structures deep below the cortex. When anxiety and fearfulness arise in a classroom, these can increase activity in a subcortical structure known as the amygdala. In turn, that can have an unhelpful effect on our frontal cortex, making us less able to consciously attend to our learning. Fear and anxiety can make us want to turn away from our learning. They can produce an avoidance response. On the other hand, anticipation of rewards, including social rewards like praise, tend to increase activity in the reward system.

Skip to 1 minute and 7 seconds Now, don’t confuse the brain’s reward system with the classroom reward system, but as we’ll see, there can be a connection. The brain’s reward system is chiefly a group of subcortical structures that are activated by rewards. Including the types of reward the teacher might use to engage his or her students. When we anticipate a possible reward, this results in an uptake of neuromodulators from deep within the brain that influence the way our frontal cortex is operating. Our attention can become more focused on the source of the excitement, and we’re drawn towards it. This is an approach response. Of course, there are significant differences between individuals in terms of what activates their reward system.

Skip to 1 minute and 54 seconds So getting to know what produces an approach response in your learners can be an important part of being a teacher. By the end of this week, you’ll be able to consider the way you interact with your students, both consciously and unconsciously. And how that impacts on their readiness to learn.

Engagement for learning

Every learner’s brain is different and students will vary in what most engages their attention and the extent to which they can control their attention (Furukawa et al., 2016; Gaastra et al., 2016).

In this video, Paul introduces the key concepts of ‘approach response’ and ‘avoidance response’ which come from activity in subcortical regions of the brain. These are useful concepts to understand for engagement.

An approach response is behaviour that brings an individual closer to a reward. An approach response does not necessarily mean direct interaction by the individual.

An avoidance response is a response that prevents an unpleasant experience, avoiding something from occurring.

This week, we will look at what might trigger an approach response, why it is effective to use a variety of strategies to stimulate an “approach” response in the brain, such as praise and tokens that acknowledge achievement, novelty, choice, chance and shared attention. We will also look at how anxiety can affect a student’s ability to learn by reducing the brain’s ability to process information.


Reflect on what you remember from your own school days. Which learning stood out as being memorable to you as a student? And what made it memorable?

This will lead us into thinking about how we can make learning both more relevant and memorable for our students.

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This video is from the free online course:

The Science of Learning

National STEM Learning Centre