Five Strategies for Creating a More Effective Classroom

The EMS/fire educator must create an environment where learning thrives–and remains long after the end of the lesson. These steps can help turn your next CE event, training session or EMS classroom into a “brain-compatible” environment.

Step 1: Build Teams
Put students into teams so every person has a responsibility and an investment in the team’s success. The students must learn to problem solve together, trust one another and come away with an understanding that medicine is a team sport. They can rotate the roles of responsibility, but teams should stay together to form trust and encourage each other to complete the mission. The U.S. military has been doing this for centuries and helps mold the best teams in the world.

Classroom Application: Keep the teams small and manageable–around five to seven students. Create jobs that give everyone some responsibility: team leader, assistant team leader, lab officer, time management officer, curriculum officer, morale officer and research officer. Provide team grades as well as individual grades, because in the mind of the adult learner, what’s not graded isn’t important.

Step 2: Create More Oxygen
Casinos understand how important it is to pump oxygen into gaming areas to keep people awake, alert and energized for longer periods of time. Similarly, NASA uses more than 17 different oxygen-producing plants in its training rooms, such as English ivy and bamboo palm, to help clean, oxygenate and negatively ionize the learning space.1

Classroom Application: Put these plants around the classroom and explain the research to the students. The placebo effect may enhance the plants’ effect, and students may soon learn to expect more of themselves with their plants in front of them.

Step 3: Add More Color
Color engages the brain. The brain looks for novelty, and colors provide just that–just ask advertisers. In 1999, a study spoke to the importance of colors in the learning environment.2 Stay away from dark, sedating colors (blue, brown, etc.) because these relax people and lower blood pressure. Instead, use bright pastels that engage and excite the brain–the best are orange and yellow.3

Classroom Application: Use bright-colored slide backgrounds–stay away from blues (a favorite EMS color).3 Put up colorful posters with positive messages to stimulate the brain and create a positive environment.4 Color is important in the classroom and is often overlooked. Splash up some color today!

Step 4: Turn the AC on
Keeping the brain cool can maximize learning–a rise of 1—2 degrees C in brain temperature above normal is enough to disturb brain functions.5 The Department of Defense has done studies to show learning is optimized at a temperature between 68—72 degrees F and the optimal setting is around 70 degrees F for more technical studies. Think of the temperature during the mid-day–how do you respond when the classroom heats up a bit?

Classroom Application: Monitor the room’s temperature. Determine through trial and error what temperature works best for your students. Remember: The brain is a supercomputer that needs to be a little cooler.

Step 5: Get Students Active
Activity turns on the brain so learning can begin. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a natural substance released by the brain to improve cognition (thinking) and boost how neurons talk with one another.2 Getting students on their feet promotes the release of BDNF, which leads to more efficient learning. Neuroscientists at University of California, Irvine, found that physical activity boosted the ability of neurons to talk.6 Activity and an enriching environment creates a neurogenesis that accelerates the learning process.

Classroom Application: Take the chairs out of the lab. Ask students to stand when answering and asking questions. When lecturing, stop every 30 minutes to get them out of their seats with an activity that reinforces what you’re teaching. Ask them a question and have them pair with someone and stand for 60 seconds to discuss the answer.


1. Jensen, E. (2008). Brain-based learning: The new paradigm of teaching. Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, Calif; 2008.

2. Vuontela V, Rama P, Raninen A, et al. Selective interference reveals dissociation between memory for location and colour. Neuroreport. 1999;10(11):2235—2240.

3. Walker M. The Power of Color. Avery (Penguin): New York, 1990.

4. Ostrander S, Schroeder L. Super memory: The revolution. Carroll & Graf: New York, 1991.

5. Ornstein R. The evolution of consciousness: The origins of the way we think. Simon & Shuster: New York, 1992.

6. Griesbach CS, Hovda DA, Molteni R, et al. Voluntary exercise following traumatic brain injury: brain-derived neurotrophic factor upregulation and recovery of function. Neuroscience. 2004;125:129—139.

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