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Interview with Dr. Janet Zadina: Applying educational neuroscience research to instruction and elearning

By Les Howles / May 2020

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Dr. Janet Zadina is an educational neuroscientist whose mission is to change the way instructors and students understand the brain and learning. Before entering the field of neuroscience, Dr. Zadina worked as a high school and college instructor for more than 10 years. Her teaching experience complements her neuroscience research, enabling her to explain neuroscience in ways that educators can understand and apply.

Founder and CEO of Brain Research and Instruction, she received the prestigious Science Educator Award from the Society for Neuroscience for her work informing the public about neuroscience. She has been honored as a Distinguished Fellow in the Council of Learning Assistance and Developmental Education Associations (CLADEA), among other honors. She is an internationally known speaker, consultant. and author. She has written numerous books for students and teachers on applying brain research to learning. Her book Multiple Pathways to the Student Brain is used by thousands of educators.

 My conversation with Dr. Zadina spanned a range of topics including contributions of brain research to learning science, common neuromyths, emotions and learning, and how the digital information environment is impacting our brains and learning. Throughout the interview Dr. Zadina discusses how neuroscience research can help inform the design of e-learning and online courses.

The number of books, articles, and presentations related to the brain and learning has proliferated in recent years and has captured the interest of both educators and students. You’ve worked in the field of educational neuroscience for several decades and witnessed its growth better than most people. How did you get started in this field and how has your work evolved? 

When I was working as a reading specialist, I read an article on giving brain scans to people with dyslexia. I saw this as a new window into a better understanding of reading difficulties. For my doctoral studies, I was able to undertake a dual dissertation project with the College of Education at the University of New Orleans and the Department of Neurology at Tulane Medical School. I investigated the neuroanatomy of dyslexia through MRI brain scans and later worked on other language disorders. I then did a postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuroscience, which was a lot like a residency for doctors. Along the way, I acquired credentials and experience in both neuroscience and education which took me beyond my original interests in language and reading. Because of the dual focus of my work, I refer to myself as an educational neuroscientist.


You have extensive experience working with neurologists and neuroscientists studying brain imagery and functions. Combined with your teaching experiences, your work nicely bridges brain research and pedagogy. How do you spend most of your professional time and how do you share your expertise with educators? 

Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina impacted our research and lab facilities at Tulane University. Since then, I now spend most of my time keeping up with current research in neuroscience and applying it to pedagogy and learning.

I work with instructors, administrators, instructional designers, and support staff in early childhood, K-12, and higher education. I conduct a variety of professional development workshops and present at conferences addressing virtual learning, educational technology, tutoring, literacy, and much more. I also consult regarding school and curriculum design.

Because I’ve been trained in studying and evaluating neuroscience research, I can say, “This is or is not a meaningful study.” I can also make credible leaps into recommending instructional strategies based on my teaching experiences and my academic degree in curriculum and instruction. I have a Resources tab on my webpage that is updated monthly where I curate resources and provide links on a variety of topics, including early childhood, brain health, technology, and learning. I also have a newsletter with articles and newsworthy links. My goal is to provide educators with strategies based on science that will enhance and energize learning. While there is special information for specific audiences, much of what we know in educational neuroscience is applicable across the entire range of learners and useful to all learning professionals.


Is the research in neuroscience and learning being accurately communicated to education and training professionals? Have you encountered any common misconceptions or neuromyths about the brain and learning that need to be addressed?

Neuroscience is not overstepping itself or putting out false information, but it gets blamed sometimes. These misconceptions come from inaccurate representations and application of brain research. You need to be critical about what’s on the Internet and in the media—what gets communicated in articles, eye-catching headlines, and blogs. You have to be careful who’s doing the professional development. Be skeptical and scrutinize their sources and credentials. It varies from article to article and practitioner to practitioner.

There are about a dozen neuromyths that have been presented and perpetuated that have no credibility. They not only waste learning time but can also be detrimental to learning.

One of those is learning styles. The term itself has come to mean that there’s a kind of a limit to the way a person learns. People say, “Their style is this, or their style is that.” The people who came up with learning styles and practiced it, (particularly the notion of visual, auditory and kinesthetic modalities) were just trying to address the needs of diverse students, and that’s a good thing. But that was before neuroimaging. We now know that the brain is not limited like that. There are many pathways involved in learning. When we label, we limit. When we know better, we teach better. So, the learning styles myth really needs to be stopped. What we want to do is look at individual strengths, interests, and skills. What we want to do is add to a learner’s repertoire.

Another myth is that Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is neuroscience-based. There are not “intelligences” in the brain. Howard Gardner—who was one of the faculty members when I studied at the Harvard Mind, Brain and Education Institute—will tell you that his theory is not neuroscience-based. Rather, it’s more about personality and aptitudes. However, it’s a great education model so we remember to think about students’ strengths, interests, and skills to diversify instruction.

One that drives me crazy is the notion of left brain/right brain types of learners. That developed when a neurosurgeon cut the corpus callosum that links the two brain hemispheres to stop seizures. The researchers discovered that if you cut the communication between the hemispheres, the patient literally had two brains. One hemisphere did not know what the other one was doing. They discovered that the left brain had certain features and performed certain functions and the right brain, as they began to call it, had different ones.

The left brain was more detailed and language specialized. The right brain processed the big picture and was more visual. Then people started saying, “We’re going to be in the left brain or right brain” for certain learning tasks. You cannot be in the left brain—or in the right brain unless you’ve had that surgery. The two hemispheres are integrated. In different learning situations, the left will be more active for one task, but it can immediately shift and be more active on the right for another related task. If you don’t have both hemispheres active, you are impaired. So, the left brain/right brain distinction was based on neurosurgery on patients, and it is not applicable to learning.


How is educational neuroscience being integrated into other well-established branches of learning science, particularly behavioral, cognitive, and educational psychology? Some researchers in these fields are now citing brain-based research to support their claims and others remain critical of it. From your perspective, how is neuroscience contributing to the field of learning science?

Some of those in psychology fields are skeptical about neuroscientists stepping into the field of learning. They have no conception of the broad range of neuroscience research. But I don’t see it as a battle. I see neuroscience as another window, and whether it contributes new information or supports theories that have been posed by psychology, it can only help us serve learners better and give us more insight.

It can do this in three main ways. First, neuroscience can help us understand invisible processes better, such as working memory, attention, metacognition, cognitive load, to mention a few. Second, it can validate the practices of good teachers and some previous research in education and psychology while revealing practices that are not substantiated. And third, it can lead to more empowered and effective instructors and learning designers who are better informed about the internal neural processes underlying learning, enabling them to understand struggling learners better.

I believe we can use multiple pathways of expertise to create the best learning environments possible. With the increase in elearning, we need to get advice from all fields to better understand new kinds of technology-enabled instructional methods and learning environments. Sometimes it’s hard to parse out the findings of neuroscience, medicine, psychiatry, and psychology at this point. The lines are blurring, which is a good thing. We’re putting it all together from multiple sources and the entire field of learning science is benefiting because of it.


With brain imaging can researchers detect neurological processes that support constructs used in many learning theories that have not been empirically observed until now? These might include cognitive load, working memory, semantic networks, schemas, and executive functioning, to name a few.

You can see on brain scans different patterns of activation and what regions are most engaged. New research even allows scientists to tell which word a person is thinking about. This gives us new insight. We can see what happens in the brains of research volunteers as they use working memory to do math problems. Working memory can put a heavy demand or high cognitive load on the brain. Cognitive load is the amount of mental resources the brain requires to process information. Some neuroscientific studies have shown the negative effects of high cognitive load on learning, supporting existing cognitive load theories.

You also mentioned a few terms from cognitive psychology, such as semantic networks and schemas that refer to how knowledge is represented in the brain. In my talks and writings, I use the term “neural networks.” which is related and often referred to as prior knowledge or background understanding. James Zull, a well-known educational neuroscientist, says, “The single most important factor in learning is the existing neural network,” which refers to schema or a person’s prior knowledge.

 Another example is Bloom’s Taxonomy and the term “higher-order thinking.” Neuroscience has shown this type of thinking is primarily processed in the frontal lobes. As we learn more about how the frontal lobes work and mediate the brain’s executive functions, we can help students develop their frontal lobes for better life and learning outcomes. For example, when neuroscience shows the frontal lobes are not fully developed (myelinated) until late adolescence, it can guide us in addressing behaviors and providing instruction that is developmentally appropriate at various ages.


It seems that frontal lobe executive functions might be related in some way to self-regulated learning (SRL), a learner trait often associated with academic success. Some educational psychologists regard SRL as essential for success in online courses, which require greater self-management of the learning process. From a brain and learning perspective, might this be one possible reason why completion rates for online courses tend to be lower compared to face-to-face courses?

Yes. The frontal lobe is the conductor of the brain. It regulates emotion, attention, higher-order thinking skills, and planning. These qualities are essential in online courses where students are required to self-manage their studies. Working online requires increased working memory and focused attention compared to most classroom contexts. It requires self-motivation and perseverance to stay focused and continue working, all frontal lobe executive functions.

When these executive functions are inhibited due to stress or have not been fully developed, individuals will not be able to manage emotions well or engage in more abstract thinking. They will have trouble starting work and staying on task.


Learning design for most online and face-to-face courses focuses almost exclusively on the cognitive dimension. Instructors prioritize efficient packaging and transmission of subject matter for learners to recall, analyze, and apply. Only recently have educational researchers begun to pay more attention to the emotional dimension in designing learning experiences. You’ve been interested in and study the emotional aspects of learning from a neurological perspective. What have you learned about the relationship between emotions, cognition, and learning?

First of all, you cannot separate emotion from thinking. There’s a famous case study of a man named Phineas Gage who received a frontal lobe injury that damaged his brain’s emotional faculties. He was unable to make simple everyday decisions. Because there was no emotion, everything was equal. What has been more elucidated recently is the role of emotion in learning. It’s been widely known for some time that emotion is needed to think well and also to learn well in the classroom.

Anxiety and stress can negatively impact a student’s performance, including their ability to self-regulate their emotions. What happens is that when a student goes into certain negative emotional states stress chemicals are released, for survival purposes. The brain/body system diminishes activation of the frontal lobe and the executive functions of the brain while increasing activation of the emotional areas and motor systems. Because the executive thinking functions are inhibited, the quality of learning becomes degraded.


Many adult learners returning to school need to balance work, family, and other personal responsibilities, which can be challenging and stressful. In our information-overloaded environment, feeling stressed out and overwhelmed seems more common today. Perhaps these emotional states could be a hidden undercurrent impacting learners. It might be difficult for instructors to recognize and deal with this, especially in online environments.

 That is a very good point. Some statistics show this is the most stressed-out generation on record. The statistics could be as high as 50–70 percent of students in a class could be impaired by anxiety, stress, trauma, or depression. In general, stress negatively affects learning and can increase cognitive load. This has become a serious concern as educators become aware of its impact. For example, a student’s ability to focus attention can be impaired due to stress-related emotional factors; therefore, they can be distracted and unable to concentrate. A person’s alertness and ability to self-regulate learning can be diminished by stress, to a greater or lesser degree. It doesn’t mean they’re shut down completely, but they’re not optimal.

New research shows that existing schema (prior knowledge) and novel unrelated information activate different areas of the brain. Learners under stress seem to activate brain regions for novel information even when they have existing schemas for that information. Understanding these internal processes may lead to better interventions for learners under stress.

Online learners often have additional stress. Classroom learners may be able to get away from some stressors, such as home problems or work stress, but online learners may be trying to learn in an environment that is creating stress in that moment. Online learners may also be intimidated by the technology and lack of support from classmates. Older learners who may be going back to school online, often fear that they may not learn as well. They’re alone and there can be a lot of anxiety. They are not in a classroom setting where they can have support and see that others may feel the same way.


Focusing on learning design, particularly for online courses, what practical advice can you offer from a neuroscience perspective that instructors should be mindful for bridging emotions and cognition?

Instructors and designers need to use practices that reduce, or at least not increase, learner stress and anxiety, especially in online courses. Most importantly, we have to be careful when communicating online because students often can’t see our body language and facial expressions. This is where most miscommunication can occur.

Ask yourself, how can I be more personal and social? In online courses, make sure your profile picture is visible. Use a smiling picture of yourself that looks friendly. A smile lights up the reward center of the brain. It reduces stress by producing positive reward chemicals.

Understand that face-to-face interactions are hugely important to the brain. So, anything that you can do in a virtual classroom that approximates face-to-face interaction—such as incorporating your image or hearing your voice—do it.

When presenting material online, make it feel as socially interactive as possible. Record yourself and show your face and your gestures, or use an avatar that is like a friendly mentor or coach. Rather than always putting instructions in text, make it personal by recording yourself using videos and podcasts. Also, using students’ names can be a stress reducer.

Because emotions interact with the cognitive aspects of learning you need to be very careful that your instructional materials do not exceed the limits of normal working memory. Although everyone has limits, students with anxiety and stress often have greater problems with working memory. Instructors need to be cognizant of the length of their material. There must be a means for breaking things down along the way rather than having students remembering long strings of information. Omit irrelevant material that can increase cognitive load or affect the limits of attention. Show students how to break down complex material and work in steps. Use graphic organizers to visually organize content and reduce working memory load.

Choice is huge in reducing anxiety and is highly rewarding to the brain. Give students more than one way to approach assignments. When you know certain students are under stress, suggest at the beginning of a learning session to take deep breaths. You can also provide links to guided imagery and short one to three-minute meditations.

Instructors must understand that the right learning environment is job one—you have to set the table before you can eat.


In the design of online and blended courses there has been an increased emphasis in using social learning strategies in the form of group-based discovery learning. From what I’ve observed a lot of this is not well designed. Instructors assign students to groups, give them instructions for problems to solve, and then take a back seat, providing minimal guidance. The trend seems to downplay forms of direct instruction and expert modeling. Can you offer any perspective on this from your neuroscience research and teaching experience?

This is a complex question that I am not sure has been addressed by neuroscience studies specifically. The brain is highly social. We are wired to be social and to learn from other people. However, the use of social learning strategies should be carefully designed. 

Keep in mind that some students don’t function and learn as well in groups. I don’t require a student to be in a group if they don’t want to mainly because of social anxiety. However, I provide opportunities for social interaction as an option where students can connect and ask each other questions. At the same time, one must be very cognizant that people are not left out of groups, and online bullying is not occurring.

You can also keep it social by having students observe experts. Because of mirror neurons in the brain, even watching someone perform a task or model how they think through a problem can change the brain and improve performance. Instructor demonstrations and modeling can be very helpful. In online learning, instructors can provide videos to demonstrate and explain difficult material. Especially in well-defined scientific and technical disciplines, instructors should not refrain from explaining and modeling. 


The emotional dimension seems to come into play here. Although people learn through social interactions, for some students in certain situations, learning may be impaired when group and social learning strategies are forced or not designed well. It seems this could reflect an individual difference in learners to which instructors and course designers need to pay more attention.    

Right, we don’t “fix” social anxiety by forcing students to engage in group work with other students. We only increase anxiety and impair performance. Of course, there are situations where we must work with others. In those cases, performance may be impaired in those with social anxiety or poor social skills. On the other hand, keep in mind that online learning can sometimes be ideal for the person with social anxiety. The key is to be flexible and sensitive to individual differences and always look for workarounds. Just as poor readers are impaired in courses with heavy reading requirements, they may be able to listen to the text instead. Unless group work is necessary for certain learning tasks, those with social anxiety should have the option to work alone. This option may be more appropriately done in online course settings.


What insights and suggestions do you have from a brain-based learning perspective for using different media in presenting course content?

Brain scans show that the same regions activate whether you’re listening to material online, or whether you’re reading it. It’s not true that it’s unfair or ineffective to let students listen instead of reading. The meaning is in our brain, not in the words, whether spoken or written.

Studies are finding that e-books may not be as effective as hard copy books, because they don’t allow for deep processing. Depending on the learning objectives, include both formats in your reading assignments. 

Use as many visuals as possible, as long as they are relevant and help to illustrate critical content. Brains can process visuals 60,000 times faster than words and people can recall images better. However, avoid extraneous visuals that do not contribute to understanding the content. This can increase cognitive load, wasting valuable mental resources that could better be used to process new information. 

Overall, interactive learning is better than listening to lectures or passive reading. For example, game-based learning activities are highly interactive and rewarding to the brain. Incorporating content into an interactive scenario would presumably be more motivating and engaging and lead to better learning outcomes. Expect to see more and better brain-related research on gamification and other interactive learning strategies in the near future.


Around the 1960s, writers such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong argued communication technologies, particularly writing and print, significantly altered and reshaped how people think. More recently authors such as Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, and Marc Prensky’s writings on teaching “digital natives,” claim that the infusion of digital technologies into our everyday lives has impacted how people learn. Is there evidence in neuroscience that our brains are being reshaped by our digital information environment? Are today’s students thinking and learning differently compared to previous technological periods?

Absolutely. Widespread literacy changed the brain. The regular classroom changes the brain. Everything changes the brain if you do it often enough. So, the question is how and how much. It’s called neuroplasticity or the ability of the brain to change as a result of experience. What you do more of gets more “real estate” in the brain. The way you use your brain creates neural networks or pathways. The more you fire those pathways, the thicker and stronger and more stable those networks get. Whatever you fire, you wire.

For example, people who play the guitar have a larger thumb representation. Now that everybody’s texting with those thumbs, their brains have changed accordingly. So, it’s a question of what are you firing? What are you wiring? How much of it are you doing? 


If the neurological processes underlying learning are changing, conventional instructional practices still dominate the pedagogical landscape. For example, we frequently hear attention spans are being shortened by constant distractions and task switching? The popularity of microlearning reflects this shift. Elliot Masie also has coined the term “learning interruptus.” Should educators be more mindful of these apparent trends when designing learning materials and activities?

I think society and educators will have to adjust to these changes. Are people going to be more distractible? Possibly. If you keep using your brain with very short attention span tasks, you are creating a stronger pathway than the pathway for reading a book that requires slow reading and deeper processing. Whatever pathways you activate will become stronger and more likely to reactivate. The scientific term for learning is long-term potentiation (LTP): The more a group of neurons fire together, the more likely they are to fire together. So, yes, using new digital tools for everyday communication and learning are changing the brain and creating new pathways.

People’s brains will become more adept at shorter tasks and task switching and less adept at other tasks that require more intense concentration. What you fire, you wire; it’s the Hebbian Law. However, we need to be concerned about students who engage in frequent multi-tasking. Learning is impaired when people multitask. Studies have shown that the people who do it the most are actually the worst at it.

Because of these patterns, instructors may need to incorporate more interactivity into their learning activities; chunk content more and add emotional elements to keep learners focused and mentally engaged.

One thing I will tell you that neuroscientists are unequivocally saying is, ‘No technology before age two.’ They don’t even want TV before age two because you need the auditory and visual system to develop over a broad range of sounds and sights, including really quiet sounds and distance vision. Too much technology too soon is going to limit the development of other brain processes. After age two, it’s really a question of how much, not whether. Too much time online in childhood has been associated with poorer outcomes. This is relatively new, so the research is still developing.

We are learning more every day that can be applied to optimize the learning process and education. I post new research, articles, and resources about many of the topics we’ve discussed today on my website (, go to the “Resources” section.


About the Author

Les Howles is an emeritus faculty associate, director, and senior consultant for learning technology and distance education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has more than 30 years of experience working in higher education, corporate training, government, and health care as an independent learning design consultant. His current area of interest is helping educators and instructional designers make the transition from conventional instructional design to "learning experience design" through evidence-based research, design thinking and creative use of digital learning technologies.

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