Wednesday / February 8

20 Instructional Strategies to Rescue the Bored of Education

I was sitting in the hair salon talking with my stylist when a young lady approached and asked if there were any stylists in the salon who could braid her hair. Since I was there for my back-to-school hairdo and in an effort to make conversation, I asked her if the braids were going to be her new look for school. She reluctantly replied, I guess so! I then asked what grade she would be in, to which she answered eighth, and I questioned whether she was excited about the opportunity to return to school. Her reply caught me by surprise! She responded, I will sleep through my classes this year like I did last year! 

In just a few words, she managed to relate to me that school was boring to her and she would only be there because she had to be, not because she wanted to be. I thought to myself, How sad is this!

In many classrooms across our nation, students will return to school as bored and unmotivated as the young lady in the salon. This does not have to be the case! For the last 25 years, I have been studying with experts and reading about how the brain actually acquires and retains information. Guess what! It’s not worksheets or the long lectures that can even put insomniacs to sleep.

There are 20 instructional strategies that, by their very nature, take advantage of the way all brains learn best. By the time you finish reading this blog, you will not only know the 20 strategies, but the rationales as to why they work for every single brain regardless of the content area, grade level, or area of exceptionality. By the way, they work for adult brains as well!

  1. Brainstorming and Discussion

Having students brainstorm a variety of ideas without fear of criticism or engaging them in a spirited discussion are motivational ways to assist them in retaining content. In fact, we remember about 70% of what we discuss. Be sure to ask application, analysis, or evaluation questions that challenge students’ thinking.

  1. Drawing and Artwork

Many students have what Howard Gardner calls visual-spatial intelligence, which enables them to create beautiful artwork. Many of these students are often off task drawing while you are teaching. Think of all the things you will be teaching this year that students can draw and watch academic achievement soar!

  1. Field Trips

The brain remembers what it experiences when it travels to places in the real world. No doubt you can still remember what you learned on field trips that you took when you were in school. Virtual field trips provide an added benefit by enabling students to travel to places that would otherwise be inaccessible or cost prohibitive.

  1. Games

When you say to students, Let’s play a game! the stress level decreases while the retention rate increases. Engaging students in a ball toss, Jeopardy game, or Family Feud is motivating and engaging. Just be sure that the game either teaches or reviews a curricular concept.

  1. Graphic Organizers, Semantic Maps, and Word Webs

Graphic organizers are visual representations of linear ideas and they appeal to both hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere loves the verbiage while the right hemisphere relishes in the pictures. I cannot begin to think about teaching comprehension skills without the use of graphic organizers.

  1. Humor

John Cleese, the actor and comedian, stated, He who laughs most, learns best. When the brain is in a positive state, what the brain is learning has a better chance of sticking. Use riddles with little ones and assign class clowns for older ones. Here are some riddles you might be able to use:

Math: What did the number one say to the number eight? nice belt

Science: How do you tell the sex of a chromosome? just pull down its jeans (genes)

P.E.: Why should you not date a tennis player? to them love means nothing

  1. Manipulatives, Experiments, Labs, and Models

There is such a strong connection between the hands and the brain that not one single theory explains it. We do know that some students will need Unifix cubes and geoboards in math or experiments in science for the light bulb of learning to be lit.

  1. Metaphors, Analogies, and Similes

Relating to students that a main idea and details are like a table and legs helps to ensure that the former concept will be understood. When students can correctly compare two or more dissimilar things, they are understanding concepts and thinking at very high cognitive levels.

  1. Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic devices are acronyms ( i.e. HOMES, FACE ) or acrostics ( i.e. Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally) which enable students to recall information. When they remember the mnemonic device, they remember the concept. Having students create their own is a blast! One young man changed Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally to Please End My Day at School.

  1. Movement

Of all the strategies, this one is my favorite, not only because it correlates so positively with long-term memory, but it is so much fun! Anything the brain learns while moving ends up in one of the strongest memory systems – procedural memory. It is the reason people never forget how to drive a car, ride a bicycle, type, or play the piano. One teacher related to me that her mother, who has Alzheimer’s and can no longer recognize her children and grandchildren can still remember how to play songs she once played on the piano.

  1. Music, Rhythm, Rhyme, and Rap

When teachers complain to me that their students are having difficulty retaining content, I remind them that those same students are singing the lyrics to every song, rhyme, or rap that comes on the radio. Giving students a song or having them create their own for remembering content is a win-win. They are even finding that Alzheimer’s patients who are not responding to anything else will respond to the lyrics of the songs they remember.

  1. Project-based and Problem-based Learning

Human beings had brains long before there was a formal place called school. Therefore, the purpose of the brain was never to make As or pass a standardized test. The purpose is survival in the real world. Real-life projects and problems, therefore, make sense to the brain and are wonderful vehicles for addressing multiple curricular objectives simultaneously.

  1. Reciprocal Teaching and Cooperative Learning

Having students sometimes reteach one another what you are teaching them or having them work in cooperative groups to accomplish a curricular objective is a good way to ensure that they are career ready since the ability to work together is a major workplace competency. After all, some of us are better than others of us, but none of us is better than all of us!

  1. Role Plays, Drama, Pantomimes, and Charades

Acting out the steps in a math word problem, dramatizing a scene from history, or pantomiming the definition of a rigorous vocabulary word practically ensures that the concepts will be remembered prior to and even long after tests have been administered.

  1. Storytelling

Reflect on a time that you were in attendance and a speaker began to tell a story. Did you note that the speaker had the rapt attention of the entire audience? If the story was emotional, then the attention rate was magnified! By telling stories that teach concepts to students, retention rates are increased!

  1. Technology

Technology is a workplace competency that every student should acquire prior to high school graduation. It is essential since so much literacy today involves computer literacy. May I caution that students should not be so engrossed in the strategy of technology that they have little time for the other strategies, such as developing the social skills integral to the workplace or the movement essential for good health.

  1. Visualization and Guided Imagery

Visualization involves seeing in the mind what you are learning. It is used in sports as athletes visual themselves scoring the touchdown or hitting the homerun before the game begins. It is also used in medicine as doctors have patients taking chemotherapy visualize the medicine knocking out the cancer cells. The more absurd the visualization, the more memorable it can be to the brain!

  1. Visuals

We live in an extremely visual world. In fact, the brain is very efficient since it processes visuals up to 60,000 times faster than words. Approximately 50% of students sitting in any classroom today will be predominately visual learners. Therefore, integrating pictures, drawings, PowerPoint or other visuals will enhance memory of your lesson.

  1. Work Study and Apprenticeships

Work study is on-the-job training and includes internships, externships, and apprenticeships. It is invaluable for integrating curricular objectives with real-life experiences. As Aristotle stated thousands of years ago, One learns to do by doing!

  1. Writing and Journals

Contrary to popular belief, things that are written in long hand tend to stick to the brain better than things that are typed on the computer, particularly when notetaking. Stopping periodically during the lesson and engaging students in quick writes facilitates memory.


These 20 strategies form the basis for the best-selling book series titled Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites: 20 Instructional Strategies that Engage the Brain published by Corwin. These 20 have transformed classrooms around the world into engaging, fun-filled places of learning since they (1) increase academic achievement for all students; (2) decrease behavior problems; and (3) make teaching and learning so much fun! To not use them should be considered malpractice!

Written by

Marcia Tate is an educator and best-selling author who has spent more than 25 years presenting engaging workshops to educators worldwide.

Latest comments

  • I checked the list and a minimum six of these are daily activities for my practice. Another four are used on occaision. It doesn’t make a huge difference. Before shifting blame on teachers lets get real. Kids are monumentally screwed up vs twenty years ago. Back then, it was possible to motivate athletes to absorb cognitive concepts so that slightly above average players worked with us to be nationally recognized champions. The priorities have shifted and the culture so deteriorated that you now have about half of our population now engrossed in doing little or nothing while negotiating for grades. The solution is probably finding alternative paths for students that just want to exit and get jobs. Our public educational failure can be reduced by not insisting everyone follow a college prep pathway. When you run classes of 35 plus students where ten don’t give a damn is a recipe for disaster yet we keep running down this blind hole.

  • I use sketchnotes and virtual manipulates in my class. Afterall you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Two strategies I would add to this list is: CHOICE and AUTONOMY. Check out my student work here:

  • I really love the 20 strategies in the article . As a special ed. teacher I get to travel to the classrooms of various teachers. The ones in which kids (even “my” students) are engaged and successful are the ones in which these are used. Sadly, many teachers are inflexible and won’t even attempt use of new and engaging ways to teach. Accolades to those using these ingredients for success.

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