The Teen Brain Pt 3: Relevance and Experience

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By Bobbie Dunn

In Part 2 of this series, I explained a bit about how important timely feedback is to a learning teenage brain, as well as some feedback management tips that will allow you to supply it without losing your mind.  Today, in Part 3, I’ll discuss how to use experience–both prior and present–to help our students make concrete connections.

Relevance: Making Connections

According to Anne Westwater and Pat Wolfe (2000), “If the brain can retrieve stored information that is similar to new information, it is more likely to make sense of the new information.  This leads to increased understanding and retention.”

So by showing students how new information can be linked to what they already know, their brain can more easily make sense of the new information coming in.  If the information has to do with something they already know and like, the students will be more interested in what we have to say.  By using mind maps or graphic organizers, students can make and visualize the connections to things they already know.

Creating Experience, Creating Learning

However, since we can’t always make connections to prior knowledge, the next best way to help the brain out, is to create a new experience.  When we create new experiences, “The activities are more meaningful to the students than such traditional activities as reading a chapter and answering questions or solving textbook problems that have little relevance to the students’ own lives” (Westwater & Wolfe, 2007).

Adolescent brains are struggling to make connections so that they can understand the environment around them.  When we simply throw new information at them without making it seem relevant, the information loses its meaning.  When we give kids real-world problems, such as a problem being faced in their community, they see the purpose in trying to solve it and make so many more connections to the curriculum.  By making more connections, the brain will better understand and retain the information.  So it is very important to remember that when teaching our disciplines, we need to point out its relevancy.

As I have stated before, adults can easily make connections that teens may not see without assistance.  So regardless of what we teach, we need to show our students how it applies to their lives and why they need to know and remember it.  One thing I’ve done, is to simply ask the students, “Why are we learning this?  Why did I ask you to do this?” and am usually impressed with the answers they come up with – some are far more advanced than my own!

By asking students “why,” many are coming up with connections that they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t been asked to think about it.

The point here is that, while the adult brain is more able to deal with abstractions and build connections on its own, the teen brain often needs to help in doing that.  Helping teens to find relevance and building experiences that incorperate your content will help them to learn.

Are you finding this brain stuff interesting?  Stick around for Part 4, in which I’ll be discussing the importance of movement.  It turns out that the brain and body are connected–perhaps in ways you’ve never considered.


  1. Pingback: The Teen Brain Pt 2: Feedback | We Teach We Learn

  2. Pingback: Teaching the Teen Brain. | We Teach We Learn

  3. Pingback: The Teen Brain Pt. 4: Movement | We Teach We Learn

  4. Have you come across data that suggests that five weeks in an ideal amount of time for teenager to focus on a topic?