With the change of seasons, I was reminded of the importance of brain rhythms for learning. Every brain’s energy varies throughout the day, month and year. If we can be aware of our own special rhythms and cycles, and our peak moments of efficiency, we can improve our performance.
The brain does not turn on or off. It cannot work at high throttle endlessly either. Here are some facts about one of our biorhythms: Circadian rhythms. These rhythms happen once a day and are related to the sun and darkness. The middle (peak) of nighttime sleep and daytime drowsiness follows a 12-hour cycle. If the 4th hour of a 7-8 hour sleep is at 2 AM, we will tend to get tired around 2 PM the next day. Further, overall intellectual performance (thinking, comprehending) peaks in the late afternoon, but reading speed decreases in that same time period. Short-term memory is often best in the morning, and long-term memory more effective later in the day.
Even our breathing has predictable cycles. On average, we breathe through one nostril for about three hours and then we switch to the other nostril. Which nostril we use affects which brain hemisphere we use more. When breathing from the left nostril, our right or global brain functions are keener. When breathing with the right nostril, our analytic capacity is sharper.
We also have high and low arousal patterns during the day divided into 90-minute cycles. Students who are drowsy in school may be at the bottom of their arousal cycle. Encourage tired students to get up and move around. Provide periodic breaks throughout the day to address these cycles, and allow students to stretch their bodies without disrupting others when their particular cycle is at a low point. This also suggests that we will get lower scores if we test students at the wrong times. It might be better to give students a choice as to times to take important tests.
Some further suggestions include:
- Offering cross-lateral walking (touching hand to opposite knee, back and forth) that stimulates the limbic system and thereby both sides of the brain.
- Varying your times for making presentations and giving lectures.
- Providing students with choices and a diverse set of activities to honor their particular bio-rhythms and learning styles. (The Dunn and Dunn learning styles assessment areas affirm this approach with questions about the best times for learning: morning, mid-day or late afternoon.)
- There are other implications for learning too. For example, requiring learners to focus for long periods of time makes them unable to process the information fully and then create meaning. Consequently, we need to build in different kinds of breaks as we learn: breaks to do something different with the task, breaks to stand up and move or use the body to demonstrate lesson concepts, breaks for student to share ideas with each other, introduction of a novel idea, breathing breaks, and sensory tools, etc.
Eric Jensen suggests that teachers also limit content, lectures and cognitive activities to 5 to 10 minute periods for children and 10-15 minute periods for adolescents. For adults, no more than 25 minutes are recommended for any lesson conveying content.
Basically, take time to observe your students’ rhythms, talk to them about when they usually feel most energetic and attentive, and encourage active brains by offering periodic breaks and sensory opportunities.