Know Thy Learner: Finding Each Learner’s “Sweet Spot”

by | Oct 16, 2018

In our book Think Big, Start Small: How to Differentiate Instruction in a Brain-Friendly Classroom, Gayle Gregory and I share ideas about how to use brain-compatible strategies and student profiles to maximise learning! We know that each learner’s brain is wired differently, based on the various life experiences they have had. We believe that learning can be maximised when the perfect intersection of high interest, focused attention, prior knowledge and positive emotions occurs for the student. This “sweet spot” can be elusive for many students and teachers, but when found – by accident, or on purpose – the student is engaged and learning just happens. Finding each learner’s unique sweet spot can be a game-changer in the classroom.

Teachers can find the sweet spot by gathering information about the learner using a formal student profile, collecting informal anecdotal observations or simply executing a trial-and-error approach. By determining how success was achieved in the past, and by using a best-guess, commonsense approach, teachers may be able to orchestrate a learning experience that will engage each learner. This entry point of interest might possibly be the tipping point and maximise learning.

We believe teachers can determine and target each learner’s sweet spot by investigating four areas of prior experiences. These are:

  1. Affective: Does the learner have positive feelings and memories about the type of task or activity to be done? Does the learner have a history of prior successes with learning and school?
  2. Attention: What types of stimuli are most likely to attract and engage this particular learner?
  3. Interest: Does the learner have adequate prior knowledge? Will they find the concept or content to be relevant? Is it personally meaningful?
  4. Prior experience: Has the learner had prior positive experiences with the type of task or activity to be completed? Has the learner demonstrated a preference for particular choice activities or processing opportunities, for example, either visual, auditory, kinesthetic or Multiple Intelligences?


Knowing what your students are involved with, and what activities they engage in outside of school, can be a valuable resource when trying to hook students’ interest and promote engagement. At professional development sessions with middle years and high school teachers, I ask them do a round robin brainstorming activity using the chart below. How much do you know about your students? How many of the prompts can you answer? Doing the brainstorm in a group helps teachers create a repertoire of ideas, pop culture terms and a knowledge base of what many of the kids might be into.

A teacher’s job is to see how and when these terms and experiences might be used to get a student’s attention. Integrating Cardi B’s name into a maths problem, analysing the idiomatic expressions used by the Love Island characters or using the Angry Bird’s game to illustrate trajectory … will let students know that you are paying attention to who they are and what kinds of things are interesting to them.

In his book Why Students Don’t Like School (2009), Daniel Willingham says that catering to students’ interests promotes positive connections between student and teacher. Do you “know thy learner”? Make a commitment this week to embed their interests and pop culture references into a few lessons. See if they smile and appreciate the connection!

Originally posted 20 January 2012 Begin with the Brain

Martha Kaufeldt For more than 35 years, Martha has been putting theory into practice as an expert in the field of brain-compatible learning and differentiated instruction. In Martha’s engaging workshops, teachers learn how to implement the same real-world success Martha has had in the classroom. When educators design the classroom and curriculum with the brain in mind, the classroom can transform into an exciting place where teachers and their students can excel. Read more articles by Martha Kaufeldt

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