Five Ways to Create an Optimal Learning Environment for Students

by Reading Horizons | Jun 7, 2012

Five Ways to Create an Optimal Learning Environment for Students

By Guest Writer, John Mendes, Ed.D.

Reticular Activating System (RAS)—Learning Applications

Reticular Activating System (RAS)

student engagementThe Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a critical component of the brain, which filters all incoming stimuli and prepares individuals for learning new information. This primary filtering system communicates and alerts the brain and the rest of the body of potential changes in the environment, which prepares the learner for new information and experiences. Therefore, the RAS ignites one’s curiosity and interest in learning new topics and concepts, which makes this an optimal time for meaningful learning.

As the RAS assists in learning new information, it can also hinder the learning process if other factors are present. One important factor that fogs this system is the emotional climate in and outside of the classroom. When a climate is deemed “stressful,” effective learning cannot take place. Stress activates the amygdala (part of the Limbic System), a portion of the brain that is associated with processing and memory of emotional reactions. When stress is encountered, the amygdala triggers the body’s autonomic “fight or flight” system, which adversely impacts the ability to learn and store new information.

On the other hand, the neurotransmitter Dopamine can be effectively used to maximize the capacity of the RAS and enhance the learning process immensely. As humans, we are innately drawn to pleasure (praise, rewards, compensation, etc) and will pattern our behaviors to receive such rewards. Dopamine not only allows an individual to see the reward but also stimulates the frontal lobe, which is required for executive functioning.

This process helps the individual understand what actions are needed to be rewarded again in the future.

What’s the Connection?

Cognitive research supports the idea that effective and meaningful learning should take place in a stress and anxiety-free environment (Chugani, 1998). In order to optimize the learning process, classroom experiences should be fun, enjoyable, and directly related to student interests. Krashen (1982) states that students are more likely to retain newly learned information when the content is associated with strong positive emotion(s).

Through neuroimaging procedures, experts can analyze and identify activity in specific regions of the brain. These scans demonstrate that under levels of stress, information is unable to enter the region of the brain where new information can be processed and memorized for new learning and future application. Therefore, when stress and anxiety are present, the learning process ceases (Willis, 2007).

Brain-based research shows that learning is more likely to take place when there are low levels of stress and learning experience(s) are relevant to students. When lesson planning, it is critical to ignite the RAS and challenge students with new concepts. With low levels of stress and enhanced student curiosity, the newly taught information is more likely to pass through the amygdala’s filtering system and create an optimal learning environment.

Five Classroom Applications

1. Voice as an Effective Instructional Tool

Varying the tone, volume, expression, and inflection in your voice when introducing new concepts can spark student interest and curiosity. When encouraging and praising students, genuine expression within the delivery is important. When instructing, being expressive and infusing sincere emotion into your voice, promotes student enthusiasm and passion. Utilizing volume control when instructing is also a powerful and effective teaching strategy. Using a low whisper indicates mystery, intrigue, and conspiracy, which will peak student excitement, where a higher volume voice may highlight or accentuate an important topic. Using inflection in the classroom is imperative, as it increases overall communication. Varying the pitch and tone can clarify the meanings of words and phrases, which is critical when conversing with students. Ultimately, a teacher has the ability to change the climate of the classroom with their voice alone.

2. Humor in the Classroom

Humor is a valuable tool to utilize in the classroom. It adds an invigorating passion and energy to the group dynamic. This tool can create a fun and animated classroom environment for all students. There are many positive psychological effects of laughter that can enhance the learning process. Laughter reduces stress and anxiety, increases self-esteem and self-motivation (Berk, 1998). Using humor increases teacher-student communication and generates a bond between the instructor and the class.

This tool, if used correctly and consistently can bring to life any content area.

3. Cooperative Groups and Student Involvement

Cooperative groups increase student involvement and participation, as they work collaboratively to complete a given task and/or project. This strategy develops student interpersonal skills, which is critical in future functional situations. Students are given an opportunity to identify and utilize their strengths in order to contribute to the progress of the group. Students also learn how to manage conflict and mediate problematic situations.

Overall, students have the opportunity to engage in a variety of activities with their peers and improve their understanding of taught concepts by taking accountability and investing in their own learning. Brain imaging research supports when students find the topic relevant and is able to solve a problem themselves, they are more likely to retain and comprehend the new content (Willis, 2007).

4. Modify the Scenery-Change of Pace

Constantly changing the classroom environment keeps students on their toes and wondering what the lesson has in store for them today. Changing the layout of the classroom by varying desks and seating arrangements could arouse inquisitiveness. Using various music and aromas could also energize or calm students to relate to the particular daily lesson. Rewarding students with tangible and/or edible items depending on their involvement could also evoke motivation and enhance the learning process.

5. Create a Safe Environment

When looking at these instructional strategies, none is more important than creating a safe and comfortable environment for students. Without this secure atmosphere, learning cannot take place, and academic progress comes to a halt. It is imperative that students are within a positive emotional environment, free from intimidation and threats. Building a classroom environment where students are respected and feel comfortable expressing their ideas and perspectives provides a setting for optimal learning.

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When utilizing the Reticular Activating System while lesson planning, understand that the overall goal is to increase student interest, anticipation, attention, and wonder while keeping stress and anxieties to a minimum. As educators, we want to ignite the passion for learning, so students can retain and apply this information in functional settings. Creating a safe environment where communication and student-teacher relationships are established and developed is a great place to start. The aforementioned strategies will enable students to learn new information by providing an adequate learning environment and increase enthusiasm by enhancing the learning process. Thus, the effectiveness of instruction will increase and so will the rate of learning.

Learn how an effective structured literacy program can make learning to read less stressful and more engaging for struggling readers.


Berk, R. A. (1998). Professors are From Mars, Students are From Snickers. Madison, WI: Mendota Press.

Chugani, H. T. (1998). Biological basis of emotions: Brain systems and brain development. Pediatrics, 102, 1225-1229.

Krashen, S. (1982). Theory versus practice in language training. In R. W.Blair (Ed.), Innovative approaches to language teaching (pp. 25–27).

Rowley, MA: Newbury House.Willis, J. (2007). The Neuroscience of Joyful Education. Educational Leadership. ASCD. Volume 64.

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