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Dopamine is important for both declarative and procedural learning. Students’ brains estimate, moment by moment, what kind of reward might be in the offing. A reward is something a person perceives as positive. Most of the time, life just moves along for students as predictable routine. So, unless a something magically appears, students’ brains just sit around, doing usual brain stuff. But if an unexpected reward appears, dopamine squirts into many of the areas of the brain involved in learning. This dopamine not only makes students feel good but also allows connections between neurons to strengthen more easily. Dopamine reinforces actions that lead to desirable results. The critical point here is that rewards must be unexpected if they are to promote the neural rewiring of learning. Dopamine, it seems, is not released following an expected reward because there is no need for rewiring the synapses.

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Expected rewards do provide motivation. The brain’s ability to discount the motivation of a reward that is delayed in time is called temporal discounting. Steeper rates of temporal discounting have been associated with impulsive and ill-advised behaviours in teenagers.
It seems that these tendencies toward “smaller sooner” rather than “larger later” rewards may be related to quirky behaviour in a part of the basal ganglia known as the striatum. A challenge with an expected reward is that it is sometimes not what you think it is. In teaching, if you are trying to understand why a student is not motivated for learning, it’s best to “follow the reward” and to deduce what that student is truly seeking. We all have bad days. Life is not easy for our students. It is not out of the norm for a tragic life event to occur the night before your student is sitting in your class.
Because we know our students’ worlds are constantly changing and anxiety-provoking, part of our job as teachers is to provide them with a safe, orderly classroom where they know what to expect and how to meet our expectations. Proactive measures to prevent student resistance include:
1. Providing specific praise to individual students, groups, or the whole class as warranted
2. Reassuring students even when their responses are incorrect
3. Teaching students the benefits of failure (FAIL is the First Attempt In Learning) to normalise making errors and learning through mistakes
4. Setting students up for success by making sure they have the correct answer before calling on them in front of their peers.

Many other factors besides having a bad day can influence student resistance. Parents, coaches, peer groups, and employers compete for our students’ time and exhaust their energy – all of which make academics less of a priority. So, what does student resistance look like?
Arguing with the teacher | Making snide comments | Coaxing classmates to disrupt activities | Refusing to participate or being minimally involved | Being chronically late to class or absent | Failing to turn in assignments
A common error is waiting until the problem has escalated to intervene. If you do have to intervene, never embarrass a student in front of her peers. Embarrassment is just the opening sortie in a battle you will never win.
Some students will turn passive-aggressive, shut down, and refuse to participate or do work altogether. Other students will not only wage a more active war against you but will even recruit their friends against you.
Meeting one-on-one with students can be an effective way to get them on your side. Often when students are frustrated or angry and act out, it may have nothing to do with you.
When you take time to meet with students individually, you show that your care. Letting them explain their situation allows you to empathize. But make sure students leave the conservation knowing what they did wrong and how they will remedy the situation.

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The power of procedural memory: routines foster habits. You can use that power to create a smooth-running classroom. Once you’ve got the links laid down in long-term memory, procedural memory is fast – the magic “leapfrogging” of the basal ganglia allows the habitual action to be performed quickly and automatically. What our students should be doing can be so apparent to us teachers that we can become frustrated when they don’t do it. but here’s the problem: your students can’t see what is in your mind. Even before the first day of school, you can begin establishing a welcoming and productive classroom climate. When students have an idea of what to expect, it reduces distress (the bad part of stress). It allows, instead, for eustress – the healthy anticipatory stress of an exciting new experience or accomplishment. Plan to send a message to students and parents introducing yourself and letting students know what to anticipate on the first day. Your message should also contain intriguing descriptions of what is to come. Your letter should ease students’ anxieties.
When the first day of school finally arrives your best bet to help students manage the transition is to have a plan for the first days of school. Q&As can include:

  • Am I in the right room?
  • Where do I sit?
  • Who is my teacher?
  • What will we be doing?
  • What are the expectations?
A procedure is an established way of doing something. It provides a safety net that protects your students and gives you a framework for learning. As you plot your lesson, think through how you want your students to interact with the material. In safe classrooms where procedures have been taught and reinforced, students are focused and on-task, materials are prepared and organised, and a positive classroom environment prevails. To teach procedures, use direct instruction to get the information into your students’ declarative memory systems. Tell your students what you expect them to be able to do. Break the procedure into steps and show students practice until they master each procedure. When students are first learning the procedure, reinforcement with praise directed at specific actions should be frequent and timely. Then capitalize on the procedural pathway by rehearsing the skills and reinforcing them until they become habits. Common procedures to teach students include:
• Entering the classroom
• Taking attendance
• Participating in class discussions
• Asking for help
• Using technology
• Putting a header (name, date, assignment) on papers
• Making up missed work
• Using hand signals to communicate needs
• Using free time
• Leaving the classroom for lunch or the bus
Establishing procedures also communicates your positive expectations for your students. A bonus: when students have internalised what to do, they will often lend a hand o other students who may behaving difficulties. In this way, habits build classroom community. Preventing problems before they start can go a long way in creating a safe and productive classroom environment.


Use direct instruction to teach procedures for everyday tasks such as entering a classroom or asking for help.

  • Show and tell students what you desire (“I do”)
  • Practice with students what you desire – and provide praise as warranted (“We do”)
  • Demonstrate mastery of the behaviour until it becomes a habit (“You do”)

Procedures need to be taught from the first day, then reinforced and retaught as necessary. Consistency is paramount. When students learn to respond habitually, they will quickly follow the procedure without even having to think about it. Unexpected rewards squirt dopamine at synapses, which enables students to make new neural links more effectively. Expected rewards can build motivation, but students might sometimes be seeking expected rewards that are different (social acceptance) from the ones you might think they want (getting a good grade). Even when procedures are in place, there are times students will resist learning. When subtle behaviour cues don’t redirect the student, a one-on-one meeting provides an opportunity to build a relationship and plan ways to improve behaviour.