Topic 7: Factors Affecting Learning

What do I need to know?


  • Sleep helps to store long-term memories: students who are more well-rested can remember information better than those who have not had enough sleep. Sleep is a major component in ensuring that memories can be recalled at a later date.
  • Lack of sleep can lead students to feel more anxious, angry, confused, fatigued, and irritable.
  • Adolescents have a different circadian rhythm (internal body clock) compared to children and adults, which means that their bodies want to go to bed later and wake later in the morning.

Credit: Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying Research Evidence from Brain Science by Richard Churches, Eleanor Dommett and Ian Devonshire.


  • Not eating breakfast (like 14% of UK children) can negatively impact performance. The biggest impact is on tasks that are more demanding (requiring more mental effort), and tasks that require working memory. It is also the case that children who are generally not well nourished will be more affected by not eating breakfast.
  • Artificial food colours (E100-E199) have a small, negative impact on behaviour. Children can be more overactive, inattentive and impulsive after consuming artificial food colours.


  • Studies have shown that physical activity is associated with a host of measures in 4- to 18-year-olds. Those who do more physical activity tend to have better maths, reading, memory, and perceptual skills.
  • Exercise seems to show its greatest influence on executive functions, which include the ability to focus attention, ignore distractions, and hold information in mind. Children who took part in exercise programmes improved their executive function skills, with more exercise leading to greater improvements.
  • Not all studies show a positive impact from exercise programmes, but these studies also show no negative impact.

Video games

  • Action video games can improve different facets of visual attention including mental rotation of objects and tracking of multiple visual objects.
  • They are thought to be so effective due to the high demand of hand-eye coordination and the control of many movements in parallel. They also adapt according to the ability of the individual so that the speed and complexity suit the player.
  • Conversely, there is less evidence that games designed to be educational (rather than just for fun) lead to improved performance in cognitive abilities. Typically, players do improve on the task they are practicing, but this rarely transfers to other tasks.

Credit: Centre for Educational Neuroscience, University of London

What can I do in my classroom?

Where can I find out more?

  • Read more about the impact of sleep in this summary article from Professor Michael Thomas and Dr Victoria Knowland.
  • Watch Professor Daphne Bavelier’s TED talk about the effect of video games on learning.
  • Watch Professor Russell Foster’s TED talk on why do we sleep?

What should I be wary of?
Hydration and cognition

  • It has been suggested that encouraging students to drink more water is good for cognition, but the evidence is mixed.
  • Some research with adults showed that dehydration from exercise, heat, or fluid restriction led to reduced cognitive performance.
  • But not all research has found the same results, and there is even evidence that drinking when not thirsty can impair performance.

Credit: Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying Research Evidence from Brain Science by Richard Churches, Eleanor Dommett and Ian Devonshire.

Brain Gym

  • Brain Gym uses cross-body movements in an attempt to “balance” the hemispheres of the brain. This is claimed to increase learning potential.
  • However, there are no high quality studies showing that this is effective.
  • Academic, GP, and author Dr Ben Goldacre has written many articles about his strong feelings on Brain Gym.
  • Brain Gym is an example of neuroscience being used disingenuously to sell a programme with no reliable evidence to schools.

Credit: Centre for Educational Neuroscience, University of London