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Scientific Research on Learning and the Teenage Brain

Adolescence is an exciting and confusing time as teenagers become more and more independent. As they experience several cognitive changes, their brains are ready to learn, try new things, and take steps toward becoming healthy, successful adults. Teenagers are more inclined to learn and thrive when encouraged to tap their developing brains, take healthy risks, and attempt creative approaches to learning.

The Changing Adolescent Brain

During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that acts as the control center for executive functions such as planning, goal setting, decision-making, and problem-solving, undergoes significant changes. Adolescent expert Dr. Laurence Steinberg suggests that a period of extraordinary neuroplasticity occurs between the ages of 12 and 25. Neuroplasticity, or the capacity to change the brain's structure and function, allows teenagers to become functionally smarter and take ownership of their learning.

Opportunities for Change and Success

Dr. Steinberg recommends educators provide opportunities for adolescent students to discover their increased potential to learn. Due to the extreme neuroplasticity they experience naturally, teenagers have more power to improve than adults, and educators should take every opportunity to let them know that they have this potential. In particular, students who have not performed well academically should be consistently encouraged to look at themselves differently, anticipating success rather than failure. 

There are several ways to encourage and empower students to take charge of their learning and embrace their neuroplasticity. Examples include:

  • Talking frankly with students about their brain development will help them reset their expectations and provide useful context for what they are learning and why.
  • Explaining the teenage brain's malleability to students establishes a basis for them to understand themselves better and give them a greater sense of control over their educational experience.
  • Encouraging students to explore what their brain can do will lead to taking healthy risks and getting creative with their learning habits.

The Value of Risk-Taking

Adolescent brains are prone to risk-taking behaviors, as they have a higher tolerance for ambiguous results. And taking healthy risks is crucial to teenagers' empowerment. In their book, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers argue for making the most of this mindset by encouraging students to take educational risks, such as giving public presentations or exploring different paths to getting the right answer. In writing, for example, students create first and edit later. In math, students attempt to solve problems whether they feel they are ready to do so or not, then revisit those problems to see if they could have or would have done something differently.

Educators can also encourage students to try out various study strategies and assess which ones give them the best results. For some students, simply reading content without interruption is the best strategy for taking in information. Others may find creating graphics to connect ideas or using flashcards more effective. However, at this point in their learning, they must understand and develop the study strategies that will work best.

Creative Learning

Students themselves can get creative with how they learn. For instance, less-traditional note-taking strategies may help adolescent brains strengthen their rapidly changing neural connections and improve focus and retention. MathGiraffe's Doodle notes are drawing, and doodling-friendly sheets with features instructors can use when introducing new skills, formulas and concepts. They can also be utilized for practice or review. Introducing imaginative visuals to note-taking allows the brain's right and left hemispheres to blend, aiding students with emotional and cognitive challenges, making what might feel like an overwhelming lesson seem less intimidating and more doable.

According to an article from Science ABC, adolescents will start losing connections in their brain that become inactive. So, we must take advantage of the neuroplasticity and risk-taking tendencies present during this developmental period. Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore gives a fascinating and accessible TED Talk on the teenage brain. If you are interested in learning more about teaching the adolescent mind, consider pursuing a graduate degree.

Learn more about The University of Texas at Arlington online Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction – Science Education program.


American Psychological Association: Peer Influence on Risk Taking, Risk Preference, and Risky Decision

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas

Doodle Notes: Teaching Teens

Science ABC: What's the Difference Between Teenage Brains and Adult Brains?

TED: The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain


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