Brain-Friendly Conditions for Assessment

Humans have always been obsessed with time—with good reason

By Scott Sterling

In our “brain-friendly” series, building on the work of Dr. David A. Sousa and his book, Brain-Friendly Assessments: What They Are and How to Use Them, we’ve talked about the what, why, and how of assessment:

  • What is assessment, as opposed to testing?
  • Why do we do it?
  • How can we do it better?


As journalists would point out, we’ve left out a couple of key points: the when and where.

It may seem that these factors wouldn’t significantly influence assessment, but, because they are easy to control, they enable us to accurately assess whether a student’s brain has correctly moved knowledge around for long-term storage. After all, being tired or stuck in an unfamiliar place is obviously distracting for a student.


An important movement is taking place in education. Suddenly, leaders are realizing that we have our scheduling backwards. Why are elementary students, who tend to be morning people, starting school later in the day than secondary students, who tend to be night owls.

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement advocating for school districts to move middle and high school start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. School districts across the country have already started to investigate the matter and take action, most notably in Fairfax County in Virginia, one of the largest districts in the country.

The rationale and science behind it are sound. The preadolescent brain processes information better in the early morning than in the late morning or afternoon; the opposite is true for adolescents. Middle and high school students also tend to stay up later. When they don’t get enough sleep, their brains don’t have time to move information to long-term memory, a process that occurs during REM sleep.

This movement is about increasing classroom performance, but it also gives us insight into when we should assess learning. After all, accuracy is of primary importance when embarking on an assessment strategy.


Have you ever heard a song and become flooded with memories that reflect a time, place, and feelings that you attribute to it? Have you ever visited a place where you used to live and found that memories suddenly came back? When kids learn, they experience something similar.

Context aids memory. When the brain receives new information, it seeks meaning to help it move the information to long-term memory.

In Brain-Friendly Assessments, Dr. Sousa mentions a study in which SCUBA divers reviewed a word list underwater. When they returned to the surface and took a quiz, they recalled about two thirds of the words, but when they went back underwater, they remembered more of them.

Students can’t always take high-stakes tests in the classrooms in which they learned the requisite information, however. The logistics just don’t work out for most schools, but triggers, such as the famous peppermint candy trick or music, can be of some use. Simply visualizing the chosen room has even been shown to have a positive effect.

This blog series has only scratched the surface of Dr. Sousa’s work in brain-friendly assessment. The book provides much more insight and actionable steps for teachers to take to make their assessment strategies stronger, more informative, and more accurate. To go on a much deeper dive into the world of neuroscience and assessment, order Dr. Sousa’s Brain-Friendly Assessments: What They Are and How to Use Them from the Learning Sciences International bookstore.

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