Improving Academic Success with Right-Brain Learning Methods

By Lori Enomoto

Understanding whether your teens are right-brain or left-brain learners can help improve their academic success during those crucial years when grades count toward college.

Knowing your teens’ learning style is helpful to parents, teachers, tutors and, most importantly, your teens themselves. As a parent, you can then seek out learning methods that align with their learning style. And if your teens struggle to learn, this knowledge can ultimately improve self-esteem as they realize that low grades and a dislike of school may have more to do with a one-way-fits-all teaching method rather than with how smart they are.

Right-Brain vs. Left-Brain

Being right-brain or left-brain dominant refers to the different hemispheres of the brain that process information differently. The hemispheres control the different modes of thinking, and individuals tend to use one side of the brain over the other.

In 1981, Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his research in the late 1950’s and 1960’s showing that the brain is divided into two major hemispheres. He identified that parts of the brain had different capabilities and were associated with their own style of thinking.

Characteristics of Left-Brain Learners

Left-brain learners best absorb material by listening to lectures in which the material is logical and has a set of defining rules. A typical left-brain learner takes neat notes and keeps a well-organized binder. Timed tests are not overly challenging.

Generally, left-brained thinkers read directions carefully and thoroughly. They follow sequential reasoning, seeking definitive final answers and closure.

Left-brain learners excel at the following:

  • Logic
  • Analytical sequence processing
  • Numbers
  • Black & white distinctions
  • Structured thinking
  • Verbal language skills
  • Short-term memory
  • Details
  • Auditory input
  • Skilled movement
  • Naming
  • Categorization
  • Objective thinking

Characteristics of Right-Brain Learners

Right-brain thinkers often have common characteristics. For example, they’ll scan directions, rather than listen to or thoroughly read directions. Visualizing a picture can help them remember facts.

Right-brain learners tend to be day dreamers who lose track of time. They are visual students who thrive on hands-on learning. Sitting, listening and taking notes can be a struggle.

Right-brain learners excel at the following:

  • Big picture thinking
  • Visual input
  • Leaps in thinking
  • Concepts
  • Differentiation through color
  • Humor
  • Unstructured thinking
  • Awareness of options
  • Pictures (storing information as a unit rather than as parts)
  • Music
  • Metaphors
  • Intuitive thinking
  • Creativity
  • Rhythm
  • Holistic thinking
  • Synthesizing
  • Subjective thinking

The right hemisphere of the brain is associated with creativity. Right-brained thinkers process information in a nonlinear, non-verbal manner, looking at the whole picture and at the relationships of the parts to the whole. Overall, right-brain thinkers are more comfortable with paradoxes and ambiguity than left-brain thinkers.

Traditional Teaching Methods

Even though about half of students are right-brain learners, schools generally teach children using left-brain methods: auditory, black and white distinctions, and repetition. Lectures fall into this category.

Information Retention and Recall

The short-term memory resides in the left side of the brain, and the long-term memory resides in the right side of the brain. For information to be stored in long-term memory in the brain’s right hemisphere, material is optimally presented in a visual manner.

If you find yourself thinking that your teens have poor memories (i.e., difficulty retaining information), the problem could be that the information is being taught in an auditory, repetitive manner not conducive to storage in long-term memory. They can still learn through left-brain processes, but may store and retain information more easily if it’s presented in a visual way.

Alternative Teaching Methods

If your teens are indeed right-brain learners, you might need to investigate alternative ways of helping them study through visual processes. For example, your teens may excel at outlining a written composition using visual elements (such as a pre-writing web), rather than a traditional sequential outline format. In fact, any material that can be learned in an auditory manner can be converted to pictures for right-brain learners.

In addition to pictures, right-brain learning strategies use color, stories, humor and emotion. To learn vocabulary, grouping the word with an image will facilitate storage in long-term memory. There are also methods that students can employ to take “picture notes” to better retain information through visual memory.

Complexity of the Brain

Of course, the reality is that your teens use both hemispheres of their brain; the corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres. Researchers have studied people with brain damage and brain lesions to better understand the skills dominant in each brain hemisphere.

To give you an idea of the complexity of the brain, although language skills tend to be left brained, language can be controlled by the right or left hemispheres, or even by both hemispheres. To complicate matters further, in integrated brain activity, the functions of one hemisphere of the brain are available to the other.

People are not exclusively right-brain thinkers or left-brain thinkers; there’s a continuum. Even if your teens are left-brain dominant, they shouldn’t be excluded from right-brain presentations, as a visual context can be helpful to everyone. Some of the great leaps in learning are made through right-brain teaching strategies.

Furthermore, whole-brain teaching strategies tap both hemispheres of the brain. Music and soothing colors may be used to relax learners, so the emotional climate is more conducive to learning. Any kind of imaging technique, like visualization, drawing and drama, help reinforce learning and provide context.

Adjusting Learning Methods to Learners

Rather than labeling your children as “smart” or “academically challenged,” consider how you can better accommodate their differences in learning styles. With about half of the population right-brain dominant, you should be open to learning methods that adjust for differences. Understanding the differences in right-brain and left-brain thinking reinforces schools’ shift away from relying completely on rote memorization.

When we adjust learning methods to right-brain thinking, we’re placing a higher value on creativity and intuitive reasoning. Right-brain learners, who might otherwise have been turned off by traditional teaching methods, may instead find themselves invested in the learning process.