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A Review of Brain-Targeted Teaching© Model Strategies

Establishing a welcoming emotional classroom climate for learning that helps students relate to the content positively is the design’s primary strategy.

“The biology of mind will be to the twenty-first century what the biology of the gene was to the twentieth century” Eric R. Kandel, Nobel Prize Recipient for Medicine (2006).

This article is a review of the Brain-Targeted Teaching© Model Strategies designed by Dr. Mariale M. Hardiman, Johns Hopkins University and applied to an online university classroom setting. The model applies teaching strategies and learning design concepts to six brain-targeted areas of learners of all ages. I provide a brief review of each target as they apply to students and faculty in online college learning.

Dr. Hardiman created this website including free downloads to help faculty from kindergarten to graduate school. Dr. Hardiman published two books and several scholarly articles on Brain-Targeted Teaching © (BTT). In her writing, Dr. Hardiman stresses that educators need information from the neuro and cognitive sciences to dispel neuro-myths and to appreciate brain anatomy related to learning as context to teaching within the BTT framework. The model applies teaching strategies and learning design concepts to six brain-targeted areas sequentially reviewed below.

BT-1 Positive Emotional Climate and Emotional Connection

Establishing a welcoming emotional classroom climate for learning that helps students relate to the content positively is the design’s primary strategy. All learning from our senses of sight, hearing, smell and touch pass through the limbic (emotional) systems of our brain before the information is stored in the cerebral cortex. For a marvelous 3D view of the brain, click here. Philosopher Rene Descartes was half-right in saying, “I think; therefore I am” because it comes after, “I feel and then I think.” To paraphrase Dr. Hardiman, it’s not just what students learn; it’s how they learn it. Brain target one includes five factors:

  • The effect of self-concept (self-efficacy) on learning—a relaxed yet attentive learner state promotes curiosity and fosters self-belief that students may learn the material with effort (Bandura, 1986).
  • Understanding the neurobiology of emotions—Frederickson (1998) tells us that positive emotions influence “broad cognitive associations and result in better performance on creative thinking.” 
  • Identifying factors that cause stress for students—every student has an “emotional temperature” toward learning. Connecting learning to a positive experience heightens memory and learning and decreases stress.
  • Strategies for reducing stress—Faculty with a growth mindset, kindly disposition in words and actions, along with gentle humor reduce environmental stress.
  • Promoting a positive emotional climate—Faculty who model warmth and kindness become a positive memory and engage students to learn more. Learning student names and pronouns is important for online engagement.

BT-2 — The Physical Environment

In an online classroom, the physical environment relates to the learning management software’s design, the use of messaging and faculty feedback. As 90% of the brain’s sensory input is visual, passing through the occipital Lobe, the brain continually scans for novelty in a familiar environment. Announcements with images and instructional videos with subject matter expertise that adds to previous learning in the course and connects to current course content reinforce this target. Faculty may create visually appealing materials with appropriate soft and subtle background, positive images and sound if possible. Messaging that is good-natured, colorful, organized and structured matter to this target. Using multicultural, inclusive messaging allows students to see themselves in the course.

BT-3 Big-Picture Concepts Enhance Conceptual Development

Imagine you are building a puzzle on a kitchen table and somehow lose the cover of the box with the picture of the puzzle image. You only have pieces of information and are missing the final result. That image captures brain target three. Concepts and skills taught in isolation are mostly meaningless puzzle pieces for students, as our brain searches for meaning by patterning content. Patterning is a meaning-gathering mechanism that categorizes stimuli into familiar or novel concepts, then combines these concepts to create new patterns of thinking and understanding. Most adults add new learning to what they already know (andragogy). Learning takes place when faculty explain the big picture and connect concept chunks that relate prior knowledge and understanding to new information. Material “chunked” through interleaving practices help memory to form. Seeing material one week and again two weeks later with new information added to the original material helps form stronger memorization and learning. Learners complete the puzzle with the end in mind.

BT-4 Mastering Skills, Content and Concepts

Brain target four is about the neurological foundations of learning in mastering content. These foundations involve how information is encoded, processed, stored and retrieved in our brains. Dr. Hardiman (2012) writes, “The most important factor in determining how well we remember information is the degree to which we rehearse and repeat that information.” Consider these four Rs: reading, repetition, rehearsing and remembering. As neural connections receive stimulation, they form an engram or memory trace. An engram is how memory is stored in biochemical means. As students learn, the brain causes neuronal cells to reach out to other neurons. Research tells us that when cells connect, they spark and make a popping sound. As these cells fire, they become a hard-wired memory. Connections become wired through emotion, attention, prior knowledge and the degree of rehearsal and repetition.

Brain Activity

The brain has two main cell types: neurons and neuroglial or glia. These cell types are unique to brain activity. The more we recall a memory, the stronger the memory becomes as repetition strengthens neural connections, resisting interference from other memories. Neuron cell connections are protected by glia, a substance that insulates memory cells. This formation helps us remember what we pay attention to. To remember new information, we associate it with what we know. The more associations we build for learners, the more memory clues a student will form. Memories with emotional resonance are stronger than others because the amygdala forms long-lasting memories in the hippocampus. As humans evolved, our learning brains began sending signals that reinforce salient emotional experiences. The brain is wired to focus on novelty within a positive emotional experience, as new information attracts more attention (Suzuki, 2015). Neuroplasticity—or cell growth—occurs when we learn new or different (novel) material. The brain evolves through learning. When learners make mistakes, they learn more and better by correcting mistakes.


Our brains also have different types of memory. Short-term memory allows us to retain information like an Excel formula or a phone number for 30 seconds to use it immediately. Working memory is temporary but allows us to perform executive functions like planning, organizing and rehearsing. Capacity for this brain chunking method is about seven to nine items (like a phone number). Long-term memory recalls past learning. If we work in accounting, for example, the brain perceives that learning a trial balance listing of ledger accounts is worth retaining, and this information shifts from the working memory to long-term memory storage called long-term synaptic potentiation or LTP. LTP is the gold standard of memory, creating synaptic plasticity (cell growth) in the hippocampus. Implicit or procedural memory involves non-conscious processes that guide behavior without our awareness or memory motor muscle activities—like driving a car. While we may forget where we put our car keys, we do not forget how to drive. Procedural memory is processed in the cerebellum. This memory includes activities like decoding words and numbers through repetition or priming. Priming activities in the classroom reinforce memory for several weeks—the length of a course term. Priming is an effective way to teach facts and actions. Consider, for example, building a spreadsheet or learning a foreign language. This learning takes practice. Explicit or declarative memory encodes factual memory related to conscious awareness. This learning occurs in hippocampal neuronal networks that encode events common to related episodes, like recalling a favorite spot at the beach where you also enjoy reading books. Further, declarative memory is categorized as episodic and semantic. 

Episodic memory is required for performed and rehearsed events, like memorizing a poem or taking a written driving test. This information is stored in the hippocampus and records the when, where and how of an event. This memory is not linear but reconstructed and acts more like a play with scenes in our mind. Semantic memory is factual knowledge gained from long-term experiences like language, grammar and formulas. Semantic memory applies to traditional learning in school or work. We appreciate that learning facts (semantic) in a positive experience (episodic) is the underlying premise of a positive emotional classroom climate or the importance of brain target one. Allowing time for repeated rehearsals helps information move from the working to the long-term memory systems, creating new proteins in the brain. “Effective teaching can result in biochemical changes in the brain!” (Hardiman, 2012).

BT-5 Application Through Creative Problem-Solving

Real-world applications are most useful to adult learners, as these applications help develop higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, and by connecting knowledge to what students know and have experienced. For example, Scenario-Based Learning (SBL) is an important method for adult learners. fMRI scans demonstrate different parts of the brain are engaged in processing complex thinking and problem-solving tasks. The brain appears to be modular in learning complex information. We may consider the anatomy of a rose. We might consider color, texture, stem, thorns, the name of a favorite aunt—all these qualities help make the lesson stick. Higher-order thinking includes memory, language, emotion and active learning; learning that is experiential and involves movement connects more parts of the brain. The motor cortex and cerebellum are involved along with prefrontal and frontal cortex areas. Incorporating some type of movement and interaction for the learner helps reinforce learning, thinking and remembering. Problem-solving and critical thinking skills are qualities of higher-order thinking. Problem-solving tasks, particularly in real-world scenarios for adult learners, help connect the brain’s acting modules (the motor cortex) with the thinking modules (the front cortex). Problem-solving modifies brain structure and creates chemical changes, making the brain more efficient with critical thinking and problem-solving opportunities.

BT-6 Evaluation Reinforces Learning

Cognitive science supports what educators experience: assessments and feedback strengthen learning and memory patterns. Evaluating learning is embedded in every stage of the BTT model and acts like a dipstick, checking for learning and understanding.

Research shows that appropriate feedback is a most effective strategy to improve student performance. Students who received relevant feedback performed significantly better on achievement measures than students who do not receive the feedback. Studies demonstrate that learning is enhanced when students receive quick, specific, corrective feedback like the “sandwich method”: tell the learner what they did well, what needs to be corrected and how to correct it. In addition to using selected-response test items such as multiple choice or true-false, faculty may include constructed-response assessment activities such as building financial statements, designing a presentation or writing a business memo. Constructed-response assessments measure learner performance promoted by Brain-Targeted Teaching® that typically are not measured well by selected-response test items. “Educators may use scoring rubrics, keys, checklists, self-evaluations, and reflections to measure what students know, perform, and construct to demonstrate content standards in constructed-response assessments” (Hardiman, 2012).

I encourage you to apply this science-based research in your curriculum development, learning design and teaching.


Bandura, A., & National Inst of Mental Health. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory.

Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). Cultivated emotions: Parental socialization of positive emotions and self-conscious emotions. Psychological Inquiry, 9(4), 279-281.

Hardiman, M.M. (2012). The Brain-targeted teaching model for 21st -century schools. Corwin.

Kandel, E.R. (2006). In search of memory: The emergence of a new science of mind. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-05863-8

Suzuki, W. (2015). Healthy brain, happy life: A personal program to activate your brain and do everything better. Harper-Collins.

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