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Left-Brained Versus Right-Brained: Which is Best for Learning?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Almost everyone has heard about this research on learning, memory and hemispheric specialization in a general way, but reviewing it in a bit more than the usual level of detail may enhance its value to our teaching.


The posting below looks at left-brain, right-brain implications for teaching and learning. It is by Sharyn Hardy Gallagher, University of Massachusetts, and is number 27 in a series of selected excerpts from the National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, FEBRUARY, 2005, Volume 14, Number 2, ? Copyright 1996-2005. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Studying in Several Countries

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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By Sharyn Hardy Gallagher, University of Massachusetts


As educators, we present vast amounts of information to our students. We try to have interesting lectures and relevant projects but students' performance on exams frequently suggests what we've presented hasn't stuck. We know we covered material adequately, yet students struggle with memorizing everything that we impart in time for the exam.

The past 30 years have seen a great deal of research on learning and memorization. One area of research has looked at the two hemispheres of the brain and the activities performed by each side. The left side of the brain performs the more logical functions, which deal with verbal and analytical processes. The right side performs activities thought of as more creative, those dealing with patterns and relationships. By understanding how the brain works, researchers hoped to be able to figure out optimal ways for learning.

Traditional instruction in higher education has long been about words: the professor's lecture, the textbook descriptions, the writing assignments and the examinations. These activities make use of the left side of the brain. If student performance has room for improvement, do we need to do more with the "left brain" or should we focus on the "right brain"? The answer is "both," for the functions of each hemisphere are complementary, and when tapping into both sides of the brain, the mind is at its greatest power and flexibility (Williams, 1983).

Almost everyone has heard about this research on learning, memory and hemispheric specialization in a general way, but reviewing it in a bit more than the usual level of detail may enhance its value to our teaching.


Learning is the process through which experience causes permanent change in behavior or knowledge (Woolfolk, 1993). There are two primary schools of thought regarding how people learn, the behavioral and cognitive schools, each of which encompasses many individual theories and principles. Cognitive theory focuses on the internal mental activities that bring about a change in knowledge. They focus on mental activities such as thinking, remembering, creating and problem-solving. Behavioral theory focuses on the effects of external events on the person. Scientists, like Pavlov and Skinner, looked at how external stimuli could produce observable responses.


According to Woolfolk (1993), memory has three components: the sensory register, short-term memory and long-term memory. The sensory register is the original source of input to the memory. It constantly receives input from all senses and retains all of this information briefly. It encodes what it perceives to be important and passes it along to short-term memory. Much of what we perceive is related to how we give meaning to sensory input. Many theories, such as Gestalt, bottom-up processing and top-down processing, indicate that people tend to organize sensory information into patterns and relationships for enhanced learning and storage.

The short-term memory can retain five to nine separate items at a time that will last approximately 20-30 seconds. Long-term memory holds information that has been learned well. It has unlimited capacity and duration, although information can take some time to be learned well enough to be stored here. The brain is capable of absorbing more than 36,000 images per hour (Hyerle, 2000).

Woolfolk (1993) cites Paivio, who suggests that information is stored in long-term memory as a visual image, verbal unit or both; information that is coded both visually and verbally, as a "course graphic" attempts to do, is easiest to remember. Woolfolk also cites Craik and Lockart, who have an alternative view of memory from the three component model above. Craik and Lockart suggest that what is remembered is related to how the information is analyzed and connected with other information; the more the person processes the information, the better the recall of it.

Using graphics in presenting material to students can provide the framework to help them analyze the key topics in the course and interconnect them. Careful design of a course graphic and periodic review of it by the students create the familiar image that organizes information and becomes memorable.

Hemispheric Specialization

For decades, scientists have studied the brain to understand how it functions with respect to processing information. As technology has advanced, scientists have been able to do more sophisticated research. We know that certain areas of the brain control various processes in the body.

Buzan cites many research studies conducted in the 1960's and 1970's, especially work done by Nobel prize winner Roger Sperry, Robert Ornstein and Eran Zaidel. In summary, the brain has two halves that are connected by a complex network of nerve fibers. Initial research concluded that each hemisphere specialized in different types of mental activity. In most people, the left cortex deals with logic, words, numbers and reasoning, "the so-called academic activities" (Buzan, p. 17). The right cortex deals with images, imagination and patterns. While one side is actively processing information, the other side tends to rest. Research showed that when people worked to develop weak mental areas, all mental performance seemed to improve.

Further research has discovered that each side of the brain actually replicates to a large degree the other side's abilities. Each hemisphere is capable of wider and subtler mental activities than previously thought. Both Perecman (1983) and Springer and Deutsch (1998) find no evidence that only one side of the brain is involved in a given cognitive task. Instead, both sides are engaged during mental processes, even though one hemisphere might be more dominant in a particular process.

Implication for Instruction

The key implication of this research for teaching is that use of a variety of techniques that appeal to both areas of brain function will improve student learning. For example, enhancing lectures with graphical aids or using color, music or other sensory experiences with a presentation or assignment will touch both logical and creative brain processes. As with a muscle, the more the brain is exercised, the more it develops, leading to an increase in the capability to learn and remember. If we educators can exercise the entire brain, the student should be able to learn and remember more. Hence the need for a variety of stimuli-aural, visual, tactile-has a scientific basis, just as the findings of behavioral psychology support the need for activities in addition to other means of presenting information. Learning, after all, isn't just about information; it's about understanding.


Sharyn Gallagher

Visiting Professor

University of Massachusetts Lowell

1 University Ave

Lowell, MA 01854

Telephone: (978) 934-2815


* Buzan, T. 1991. Using Both Sides of Your Brain (3rd ed.). New York: Penguin Books.

* Hyerle, D. 2000. "The Organizing Mind." Chapter 4 in A Field Guide to Using Visual Tools (pp. 59-79). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

* McMillan, J. H. and Forsyth, D. R. 1991. "What Theories of Motivation Say about Why Learners Learn." New Directions for Teaching and Learning 45: 39-51.

* Paivio, Allan. 1979. Imagery and Verbal Processes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

* Perecman, E. 1983. Cognitive Processing in the Right Hemisphere. New York: Academic Press, Inc.

* Springer, S. and Deutsch, G. 1998. Left Brain, Right Brain: Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

* Williams, L.V. 1983. Teaching for the Two-Sided Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

* Woolfolk, A. E. 1993. Educational Psychology. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.