Chemical Reactions in the Classroom

I just wrote this blog for ASCD. I hope it impacts other educators as much as it has informed me in researching it.

Chemical Reactions in the Classroom

 By Dr. Stephanie Knight 

Instead of student engagement, we should think BRAIN engagement! It is possible to impact students’ brain chemistry. This means that a student would be wholly and fully engaged. Educating the whole child takes on a whole new meaning when an educator can engage all parts of the brain throughout the class time.

Many have attempted to describe what is student engagement. One of the foremost experts is Phil Schlecty. He (1994) would note that students who are engaged are enticed by their work, persist no matter the difficulties, and are excited about their accomplishments. Adela Solis, Ph.D (2008) from the Intercultural Development Research Association adds that an engaged student, who is substantially engaged (vs. procedurally engaged by just following the rules), pays attention to the routines of instruction but also “interacts with the content of the lesson in a deep and thoughtful manner.” (Solis)

So if we know the meaning of engagement, then we must know how to achieve it and cause certain chemicals to react The noted chemicals that can be influenced and affected in the classroom are, according to brain-based education expert Eric Jensen (2013), serotonin, dopamine, cortisol and norepinephrine. Stimulating these four neurotransmitters will lead to the brain being fully engaged, therefore creating the ideal learning environment.

Serotonin sets the mood: The environment

Serotonin is the mood regulator so how can we raise it in the classroom? Jensen (2013) notes that classroom rituals, community and friendships can boost levels. Another aspect of this familiar comfort feeling is creating a “living room” effect in the classroom via the environment.

Imagine that students have just entered the classroom. Instantly their emotions are engaged and their minds and are attending to the atmosphere. According to Marzano and Pickering (2010) in their highly acclaimed book, The Highly Engaged Classroom, they discuss that students ask themselves certain questions when they are present in a classroom. One of them is “how do I feel?” One way to look at this question is the physical environment. What is it like?

Dr. Sheryl Reinisch (2012), director of Early Childhood Education Programs at Concordia University discusses a study of twenty-five first-graders whose classroom was made over during a period of four months, and it included student work, plants, and comfortable place to read; it led to an appreciation for the aestheticism of the environment and a much more conducive arena to teach and learn.

We do it for our guests. We do it for our customers. Let’s do it for our children.

The environment can also be influenced by what is going on within the four walls. Is the classroom a safe and valuable place for learning? Teachers must set the tone by first being positive and enthusiastic themselves. Greet each student at the door. Say each student’s name. Smile. These create emotional bonds and help set the tone for the upcoming class time. In a study by Klem and Connell (2004), students who perceive teachers as creating a caring, well-structured learning environment in which expectations are high, clear, and fair are more likely to report engagement in school. Moreover, it seems as though if one can create a personal connection with each student and show that he/she cares, this behavior is modeled for the students. We need to raise the comfort level of the classroom environment the minute the students walk through the door. Serotonin levels raise and brains are ready for learning. But, it doesn’t stop there.

Cortisol and lowering stress: Priming the pump

Do students shut down when the class begins? Shutting down is the result of something bigger than not tuning into the lesson. Students come into the class with anxiety from perhaps too much screen time, lack of nutrition, or home stressors. This causes cortisol levels to be elevated. Relational difficulties can also cause cortisol to rise. If then they enter the class with peer difficulties (within or outside of class) or lack of any emotional bond from the teacher, then the learning will be even more obstructed. As educators, we must prime the proverbial pump and prepare the brain for learning. What we expect of our students and our own behavior affects students, and what they already bring into the classroom may be difficult to overcome. Furthermore, if when they enter into class, they know there will be adversity from peer challenges or lack of emotional connections, this can bump the cortisol levels even higher thus shutting down learning. Jensen (2013) explains that this is the “body’s way of prepping for surviving.” So, before the lesson even begins, educators need to ensure that the peer relations are positive in the classroom. This may mean doing some icebreakers and setting up rules for social interaction to be constructive; any putdowns will not be tolerated. Educators must invest time into cooperative learning strategies to allow for social connections. This may take more class time in the beginning of the year, or when needed during the year, but the payoff is worth it.

Dopamine: Tap into the pleasure and reward center via the lesson

Now that the stress levels have been tempered by social positivity and supportive openings, the meat of the class is ready to begin. During the anticipatory set of a lesson, how can we make it more pleasurable so the chemical dopamine is released? Simultaneously, we want them to listen and hang on every word! If dopamine can be released, we have a better chance of retention. But how!?

Martha Burns (2012) notes that dopamine is released in the brain when we are rewarded; so, likewise, learning about new things can be an adventure and very rewarding, and dopamine levels increase in the brain to help that new information stick. But for some learners, if dopamine levels are low, the new information flees as soon as it enters. She stresses that we must make learning new and exciting. This new and exciting learning must be reinforced with positive feedback and therefore will raise the self-efficacy of the learner. She continues in saying that “carefully used, reinforcement is one of the greatest memory enhancers in the brain because it is so powerful at increasing dopamine.” He/she will believe that he/she can learn the concepts and therefore will continue to want to pursue learning further because dopamine levels will have risen.

In terms of making learning new, Ann Connelly (2011) discussed how to create a strong anticipatory set that keeps the students engaged. Teachers have to begin with something relevant to students’ lives. Therefore, she suggests starting with a problem. What are the characteristics of this problem that make it attractive? It should demand the students make some educated guesses. Sometimes, maybe it gets the students up and moving in a structured cooperative learning way; it is challenging enough that it has multiple approaches for solving, and it allows students to collaborate. When planning a good solid question, run it through this filter and think of how to make it new yet relevant to students. Starting out this way, but making sure ALL students are involved with structured cooperative learning makes learning fun and new.

One cooperative learning strategy that can be novel is a brainstorming activity called Pass the Plate. This requires a group of four to pass a paper plate stopping at each person to write his/her idea on the plate. Upon finishing, the teacher can call all the “two’s” at each group of four to stand and share. The teacher can also time the group, assuring time on task.

Next, we must interweave exciting moments into the lessons whether they be unpredictable moments or some out of the box experience like turning the lights out for an audio exercise. The first thing to realize is that it is difficult for anyone to sit for a long time and remember everything. Having a ten-two rule in the classroom makes all the difference. After every eight to ten minutes the teacher can change it up for two minutes to let the learning be processed. They can do a cooperative learning activity like think pair share or walking and talking to music to reinforce concepts.

This is where including music in the classroom can add to the excitement. The right music at the right time helps create a more imaginative classroom. This can allow the brain to be more receptive to information because dopamine levels have risen. For example, students can walk and talk to lively music while processing information; they can write to sixty beats per minute music to enter a mind-wandering mode. Before any test, the Rocky music can play to anticipate the “excitement” of a test. Music definitely adds enjoyment to any environment if chosen wisely.

The final piece to increasing dopamine levels is the importance of reinforcing learning and giving effective feedback. This can be done individually and as a whole class. A student will be more likely to engage in a given activity if he/she has a sense of self-efficacy which is a belief he/she can do it. Bandura originated this term, “self-efficacy.” He defines self-efficacy as ‘people’s judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances’’ (Bandura, 1986, p. 391). Marzano and Pickering (2010) even included this in one of their four questions in the aforementioned book, A Highly Engaged Classroom: “Can I do this?”

For example, when a teacher says “good job” to a student it may fall on deaf ears. Effective feedback is specific and timely. It shows that the teacher is paying attention to what that student needs. So, instead of “good job,” maybe the teacher could frame the words in a way the reinforces the desired behavior like, “I loved how you overcame that last grade with better study habits. I can tell you are really trying.” It’s all about framing words in a positive way.

There is more, however, when talking to a whole class. Jensen (2013) talks about the “framing effect” in speaking to a class. For example, the teacher could say, ‘Well, you all bombed that last quiz. Only one of you did well and the rest failed.” What message does this send the brains? How about this instead, “I can see many of you tried on that last quiz. Let’s put our heads together and think of what we can do to help us master this next one for all “A’s!?” The point is that we can say the same thing framed with a positive spin to help students feel they are capable. This adds to their self-efficacy and also to a teacher appearing that he/she cares. Reinforcement, being novel in the classroom, and having exciting moments….they all raise dopamine and open up the brain to learn and to keep the information alive.

Norepinephrine: Move and learn

Finally, the final neurotransmitter we want to release and increase is norepinephrine. This, according to Jensen (2013), affects many areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, which can influence where we direct attention. This means it is influenced by all of the above activities, but one thing that can encourage its release is movement. We want students to focus and be less distracted. When norepinephrine is released, this is what occurs. When students are moving in the classroom the “part of the brain that processes movement is the same part that processes learning.” (Jensen, 2005) The implications for this are endless when we consider the ten-two rule. Every ten minutes, a bit of movement like stand up hand up pair up, walk pair share, or even brain break stretching, can make all the differences for releasing norepinephrine and other transmitters to retain learning and open up the channels for increased focus and engagement

Engaging students means engaging their brains wholly with the release and increase (or decrease in some cases) of the four main neurotransmitters. The takeaway for all of us is to make sure we think these things:


Increase serotonin HOW: With positive mood-enhancing environment from the classroom setting and positivity
Lower cortisol levels HOW: deflecting stressful situations and charging students with positive peer relationships
Increase dopamine HOW: increase the fun and excitement along with positive reinforcement
Release and increase norepinephrine HOW: get the students up and moving throughout class time


Make the most of the class with these chemical reactions!



Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Burns, Martha, PhD. “Dopamine and Learning: What The Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators.” Scientific Learning. 8 Sept. 2012. 31 Mar. 2016.

Connelly, Anne. Tips to make your anticipatory set interesting to students. 8 Apr. 2011. 30 Mar 2016.

Jensen, Eric. “Teaching with the Brain in Mind.” Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2005.

Jensen, Eric. “What Brain Insights Can Boost Your Student’s Classroom Success?”

Brain Based Jensen Learning. 1 Jan. 2013. 30 Mar. 2016.

Klem, Adena M., Connell, James P. Relationships Matter:Linking Teacher Support to Student Engagement and Achievement. Journal of School Health, September 2004; 74:7.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Hefelbower, T. (2012). The Highly Engaged Classroom. Bloomington, ID: Marzano Research Laboratory.

Reinisch, Sheryl Dr. “How Comfortable Classrooms Lead to a Better Student Community. Concordia Online Education. 19 Oct. 2012. 29 Mar 2016.

Schlechty, P. “Increasing Student Engagement.” Missouri Leadership Academy. January 1994.

Solis, Adela. PhD. “Teaching for Cognitive Engagement
Materializing the Promise of Sheltered Instruction.” Intercultural Development Research Association. 2008. 31 Mar. 2016.









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