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February 5, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

Brain “Priming” In The Classroom

I’ve written several posts about brain “priming” research and how I apply it in the classroom, as well as some of my ethical reservations.

I primarily use it on days for standardized tests, and they’re all fairly innocuous (such as asking students to think and write for a minute about a successful ancestor). Also, even though some researchers have said that priming is not going to be successful if people are told in advance what is being done to them, I tell students ahead of time what we’re doing and why in the hope that they can apply these techniques to help them prepare for future high-pressure situations they might be in, like job interviews, and also because I just wouldn’t feel good about this kind of overt manipulation. I write about these ideas in my upcoming book.

Even though some researchers say it might not work if “subjects” are given prior knowledge of priming, more recent research related to placebos in medical treatment have found them to be effective even if patients know they are placebos (see my book for more information on that research), and it doesn’t seem like it’s that much of a stretch to apply those finding to priming. And, interestingly enough, I just learned about a big controversy going on in brain priming research which just may prove that point.

Apparently, though there have been a number of  successful replications of famous priming experiments, there have also been failed replications (I’m assuming that’s not that unusual in science). These failures have raised questions about if priming truly does exist (though it still has many believers, including Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman).

In one recently well-publicized failed replication of a famous priming experiment, one groups of people were given words to rearrange like like “bingo” and “Florida,” “knits” and “wrinkles,” “bitter” and “alone.” Another group were given words that had no connection. In the original famous experiment, the first group then walked down the hall slower than the second group.

However, in last year’s failed replication, it didn’t work at all — except in one instance. And that was when the group with the “slow” words was told that they were expected to walk slowly. Then they did.

I, and apparently many others who are far more knowledgeable on the subject than me, still tend to believe that priming works. But if we’re wrong, and clearly the jury is still out on that, telling my students ahead of time about the research seems to not only be the ethical way to go but a way that will also lead to positive results.

What do you think — am I missing something?

October 9, 2010
by Larry Ferlazzo

The Ethics of “Priming” The Brain (& A Question)

I’ve written several posts about brain “priming” experiments, and how the idea could be useful in helping get students in a positive frame of mind prior to taking a standardized tests. Some of these successful experiments have included having students complete “sentence scrambles” prior to a test that, once unscrambled, have them saying they are smart.

Ethically, I think doing that sort of thing seems okay to me because it’s pretty innocuous, it’s designed for the very short-term, and, even though it might not work, I figure it can’t hurt, either. And it’s surely less ethically questionable than spending a huge amount of class time on test prep.

A new study on brain priming has just come out, though, and I think it raises more serious ethical questions.

In the experiment, participants were given one of two groups of words — one related to money (like “wealth” and “price”) and other to time (like “clock” and “day”) In the experiment, which was duplicated with the same results, the people with the money words said they would spend the next twenty-four hours focused on working, while the people with the time words said they would spend it with friends.

If these experiments are indeed true, it could certainly be applied to school — students could be given words related to being successful or doing homework. But that doesn’t set well with me. It just seems like I would be trying to manipulate student behavior outside of the classroom and in their lives. Yes, yes, I know, we all try to do that in other ways. But doing it through brain-priming seems different, and I don’t feel comfortable with it.

At the same time, I think doing it before the standardized tests is okay, and don’t feel like there are the same ethical issues for the reasons I’ve already given.

So, what do you think? Is it a valid concern? Does my distinction make sense? Or do you think brain priming is okay in both situations, or in neither one?

I’ll be asking my IB Theory of Knowledge students these same questions when we begin studying ethics, and I’m very interested in hearing what readers think…

March 26, 2010
by Larry Ferlazzo
1 Comment

More On Test-Day Brain-“Priming”

I’ve written several posts about how we consciously do little explicit test-preparation at our school and, instead, feel that focusing every day on helping our students become lifelong learners is the best test prep we can do. In those posts, I do share, however, that we do whatever we can to help make our students feel comfortable and positive on the test days themselves (see Display The Letter “A” On Test Days & Your Students Will Do Better? and Getting Into A “Smart” Frame Of Mind on Test-Days). Earlier this month, several of implemented the ideas reflected in those recent posts during the California State High School Exit Exams.

One of those posts talked about some reporting by Malcolm Gladwell on studies that showed students did better on standardized tests if they either had to do some “sentence scrambles” that had positive messages or if they just wrote what they thought a scientist did in his/her life.

Another study has just come-out with similar findings
. In this study, though, test-takers just had to write about a “successful personal experience” before taking the test. Those that did so scored higher than those in the control group.

Another idea that falls into the “can’t hurt” category when state tests come in May….

February 17, 2010
by Larry Ferlazzo


I’ve written before about Malcolm Gladwell’s citing a study that showed students who were asked to take five minutes and write everything they knew about a professor (not a particular professor — just the qualities, responsibilities, etc of one) scored higher on a test they then took (see Getting Into A “Smart” Frame Of Mind on Test-Days). He says this is called ‘Brain-Priming.”

A new study has come-out and reached the same conclusions.

Both studies, though, raise the same question in my mind — both “primed” two groups: one to think about a professor, and the other to think about a less academically successful person. I wonder why neither had another group that wasn’t “primed” at all?

November 10, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

Research Studies Of The Week

'magnifying glass' photo (c) 2005, Tall Chris - license:

I often write about research studies from various fields and how they can be applied to the classroom. I write individual posts about ones that I think are especially significant, and will continue to do so. However, so many studies are published that it’s hard to keep up. So I’ve started writing a “round-up” of some of them each week or every other week as a regular feature:

Thinking of quitting smoking? Mondays may be your day is a report in USA Today about a new study that found people were more likely to initiate efforts to quit smoking on a Monday. It seems to me that this reinforces an idea that I’ve always thought — that having students review their weekly goals at the beginning of the week was a good practice. As the article says:

The researchers are not surprised. “People see Mondays as a fresh start, a chance to get their acts together,” says Morgan Johnson, research director for The Monday Campaigns, a not-for-profit organization that leads public health efforts such as Meatless Mondays. The group, based in New York, sponsored the new study after finding that calls to smokers’ quit lines and visits to the federal government’s website also peaked on Mondays.

I’m adding this info to My Best Posts On Students Setting Goals.

Scientists Discover Why Exercise Makes You Smarter is from Psychology Today. I’m adding it to The Best Resources On How Exercise Helps Learning.

The Best Learning Motivator EVER! is by Eric Jensen. I’m adding it to The Best Resources For Learning How To Best Give Feedback To Students.

Stop YELLING AT YOUR KIDS. It’s Bad for Them. is an article in Slate about a study that I’ve previously written about, but this article is particularly good:

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh found that “harsh verbal discipline”—cursing, insults, and shouting—can be as harmful to kids as hitting or spanking.

Here’s an additional excerpt from the article:


Even though it’s not “my” article, I’m going to add it to My Best Posts On Classroom Management since that’s the best place to put it for now.

I’ve written a lot about brain “priming” and its use and possible misuse in the classroom. The New York Times just published a thoughtful article examining similar issues related to it.

How Field Trips Build Critical Thinking Skills is a post from MindShift about a recent study. Though it’s not a study, you might also be interested in Why the much-maligned field trip really matters from The Washington Post.

This new study confirms what every teacher knows — self-control is stronger in the morning and decreases as the day goes on. It goes along with previous research that has found self-control is an asset that can be depleted.

Speaking a Second Language May Delay Different Dementias is a report on a new study. I’m adding it to The Best Resources For Learning The Advantages To Being Bilingual.

June 20, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

My Best Posts On New Research Studies In 2013 — So Far


I’m continuing to do early versions of “The Best Of The Year” lists so in December, when I do the final ones, I won’t have to review an entire year’s worth of posts.

I write many posts about recent research studies and how they can relate practically to the classroom. In fact, I post a regular feature called Research Studies of the Week. In addition, I write individual posts about studies I feel are particularly relevant to my work as a teacher.

You might also be interested in:

My Best Posts On New Research Studies In 2012 — So Far

My Best Posts On New Research Studies In 2011

Here are my choices for My Best Posts On New Research Studies In 2013 — So Far:

Intriguing New Study On Student Engagement

Interesting New Study By Carol Dweck

How Many Studies Must A Man Do Before He Gives Up On Trying To Prove Extrinsic Motivation Works?

Won’t Researcher Roland Fryer Ever Give Up On Trying To Prove Extrinsic Motivation Works Better Than The Intrinsic Kind?

The Power Of Stories

The Importance Of Explaining “Why”

Study Says Ability To Identify Patterns Key To Second Language Learning

Another Study On Schools Providing Students Home Computers Finds The Obvious Results

Important Research On Grammar Instruction

Interesting Study, Disappointing Interpretation

Texting & Marshmallows

Quote Of The Day: “Sex Differences in Mathematics and Reading Achievement”

Appealing To The Self-Interest Of Bullies

Simple Writing Exercise Said To “Narrow Achievement Gap”

Need More Evidence About The Dangers Of Extrinsic Rewards? Here It Is From The Harvard Business Review

Another Example Of Mentoring Success

Our Students Are Not Supermen & Superwomen

How Did I Not Know About This National Academy Of Sciences Report On Student Motivation?

Media Coverage Of Mayo Clinic’s Research On Paying People To Lose Weight — Not Seeing The Forest For The Trees

“Short Bouts of Exercise Boost Self Control” — Is That Your Experience With Students?

Learning Another Language Makes Your Brain Grow Bigger — Literally

“The High Cost Of Rudeness”

Study: Self-Esteem Activity Helps Latino Students, Too

Study: More Power Equals More Self-Control & Less Power Equals — You Guessed It!

More Understanding Equals More Interest & Intrinsic Motivation

It’s Official: “What Works Clearinghouse” Approves Study That Shows Relationships Promote Perseverance & Cash Bonuses Do Not

Brain “Priming” In The Classroom

New Research Shows Why Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Education Are Not Enough

How Do We Contribute To Students Being Rude In Class?

Surprise, Surprise: Study Finds That Relationships Promote Perseverance & Cash Bonuses Do Not

The “Best Learning Techniques” Are Useless If Students Won’t Do Them — A Critical Take On A Well Done Study

More Info On Student Cellphone Use In Class Research

The Best Posts & Articles On The “Motivation Trumps IQ” Study

“Share your Good News, and You [ & Others ] will be Better Off”

Feedback is welcome.

If you found this post useful, you might want to consider subscribing to this blog for free.

You might also want to explore the 1100 other “The Best…” lists I’ve compiled.

February 25, 2013
by Larry Ferlazzo

February’s Best Posts From This Blog

I regularly highlight my picks for the most useful posts for each month — not including “The Best…” lists. I also use some of them in a more extensive monthly newsletter I send-out. You can see older Best Posts of the Month at Websites Of The Month (more recent lists can be found here).

These posts are different from the ones I list under the monthly“Most Popular Blog Posts.” Those are the posts the largest numbers of readers “clicked-on” to read. I have to admit, I’ve been a bit lax about writing those posts, though.

Here are some of the posts I personally think are the best, and most helpful, ones I’ve written during this past month (not in any order of preference):

Summary: Week Four Of Twitter Chat On Student Motivation Using #selfdrivenlrng Hashtag

I Began This Blog Six Years Ago: Here Are My All-Time Most Popular Posts

Video: Excellent Classroom Example of Dan Pink’s “One Sentence Project”

What A Neat Lesson Idea For Using Photos!

Knowledge Isn’t Power — “Power is Power”

Study: More Power Equals More Self-Control & Less Power Equals — You Guessed It!

Free Book Excerpts — Lesson Plans On Bloom’s Taxonomy & Metacognition

“Teachers As ‘Persuaders’: An Interview With Daniel Pink”

The Harlem Shake As A Language-Learning Activity

“7 Qualities to Maximize the Impact of Your Lesson Plans”

“Several Ways to Balance Between District Mandates & Student Needs”

You Can Now Pre-Order My Book, Self-Driven Learning, On Amazon

I’ll Be A Guest At An Ed Week Webinar On “Developing Intrinsic Motivation in Students”

“What Does It Mean to Be a Citizen?”

“Brainy Box” Is A Winner!

“How Peer Assistance Can Improve Teacher Practice”

Brain “Priming” In The Classroom

What A Great New Financial Literacy Tool For English Language Learners & Everybody Else

“Creating a Culture of Improvement With Peer Assistance & Review (PAR)”

Student Reflection Form On Goals & Joy

New Research Shows Why Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Education Are Not Enough

One New Activity I’m Doing To Help ELLs Learn Academic Vocabulary – & Practice Speaking It

Washington Post Reprints My Evaluation Post

“Response: Do’s and Don’ts for Better Project-Based Learning”

June 15, 2011
by Larry Ferlazzo

The Best Resources On “Becoming What We Read”

'Reading About Cisco' photo (c) 2011, Bruce McKay - license:

(Note: This post was not originally a “The Best…” list, but as more and more information on this topic became available, I decided to turn it into one.)

In my book, English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work, I include a chapter on the importance of relationship-building in the classroom — both between teacher and students and between students and other students. One way to reinforce that through literacy development is to have students read both true-life stories (I specifically suggest a piece written about Martin Luther King) and ethnic folktales that reinforce that message.

Two new studies suggest that I might have been on to something….

Becoming a vampire without being bitten: A new study shows that reading expands our self-concepts is a report on one study that had participants read either Harry Potter or Twilight. Results showed that:

Harry Potter readers “became” wizards and the Twilight readers “became” vampires. In addition, participants who were more group-oriented in life showed the largest assimilation effects. Finally, “belonging” to these fictional communities delivered the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliation with real-life groups.

And, today, a Wall Street Journal article titled Contagiously Stupid Characters explained that:

College students who read a brief screenplay about a moronic soccer hooligan subsequently did worse on a test of knowledge than a control group.

The article quote a researcher as saying:

“The present study is, to our knowledge, the first to show media priming effects of story characters on cognitive performance,”

Here’s another study:

Inspiring Stories Can Lead to Empathy is a report on a study that “found that the participants often would spontaneously reflect on their own lives and express a desire to be better people after hearing stories meant to induce admiration for virtue or compassion for social or psychological pain.”

Books Don’t Take You Anywhere is a satirical article from The Onion that is somewhat related to this topic.

In The Minds Of Others: Reading fiction can strengthen your social ties and even change your personality is the title of a Scientific American article. It discusses the effect that empathy can have on readers. You can only read the beginning of the article for free, and have a pay a few dollars to gain access to the entire piece. I think it’s worth it. Here’s how it sums up the research conclusions:

1. Reading stories can fine-tune your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings.

2. Entering imagined worlds builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view.

3. A love affair with narrative may gradually alter your personality—in some cases, making you more open to new experiences and more socially aware.

10 Novels That Will Sharpen Your Mind [Interactive]:And boost your social skills to boot is from Scientific American and builds upon previous studies I’ve shared here.

Changing our Minds discusses a study and other ideas that suggest “fiction helps us understand ourselves and others.”

The Business Case for Reading Novels is from The Harvard Business Review. It reviews research on the role of reading fiction in helping people develop empathy.

Your Brain on Fiction is from The New York Times.

Why fiction is good for you is from The Boston Globe.

If We Are What We Read, Who Are We, Exactly? is from The Atlantic.

You are what you read, study suggests is from MSNBC.

Psychologists Discover How People Subconsciously Become Their Favorite Fictional Characters is from Medical Daily.

Readers build vivid mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest
is from

You might also be interested in other posts I’ve written about priming.

How Good Books Can Change You is from The Atlantic.


Wrapped up in a Book: The Role of Emotional Engagement in Reading is form PLOS blogs.

Study: “How Stories Get Into Your Brain”

How Reading Transforms Us
is a New York Times article about some recent research. Here’s an excerpt:

“…we measured our participants’ personality traits and emotions before and after reading. We had expected that people who read a piece of fiction would experience the greatest fluctuation in their personality scores, but we didn’t find this. The genre of the text — fiction or nonfiction — didn’t matter much; what mattered was the degree of perceived artistry. Those who read a story or essay that they judged to be artistic changed their personality scores significantly more than did those who judged what they read to be less artistic.”

Science Shows Something Surprising About People Who Still Read Fiction is from Mic.

In addition, you might want to check-out My Best Posts On Books: Why They’re Important & How To Help Students Select, Read, Write & Discuss Them.