Can Neuromarketing Revolutionize Education?


Non-engaged studentsWhile just about every educator would agree that highly engaged students learn more than bored, distracted students, there’s been little effort to measure engagement. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has begun to change that with a $500K grant to Clemson University. The project will,

…measure student engagement physiologically with Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets, which will determine the feasibility and utility of using such devices more broadly to help students and teachers.

GSR is fairly basic as neuromarketing technology goes, but it’s a lot less intrusive than wiring up a classroom full of students with EEG caps.

Don’t Measure Me!

According to Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss, the Foundation changed the project description posted on its website (but not the actual project) in response to concerns that the technology would be used for teacher evaluation.

Presumably, the outcry came from teachers who feel it’s not part of their job to be engaging in the classroom. One hilarious blog post came from teacher Diana Ravitch, who points out,

At any given moment, students may be engaged or disengaged. They may be thinking about what happened at home that morning or a spat with their best friend. They may be worried about their mother’s illness or looking forward to going to the movies. They may be hungry and feeling anxious or they may be hungry and excited about having lunch.

Isn’t that exactly the point of the study? If a teacher can’t keep the students focused under these everyday conditions, that teacher isn’t performing. No teacher will maintain high levels of engagement for all students at all times, but I have no doubt some will do a far better job than others.

Beyond the Classroom

Since I do keynotes and similar speaking gigs, I’m expected to be engaging – even when the audience has reason to be distracted. Ask any professional speaker… Sometimes, you are the first session in the morning after a big party. Sometimes, you are the last thing standing between the audience and lunch or an open-bar reception. Individual distractions abound – people have phones and tablets at their fingertips, beckoning to them with the promise of new emails, texts, or tweets. Even under these conditions, you still have to keep the audience engaged. If you don’t, word will spread and your phone won’t ring.

I get feedback from conference organizers and audience surveys, of course. But, I’ve often thought it would be really useful to have some audience members wired up to produce “brain movies” like those used by Sands Research to analyze commercials (for example, see Darth Vader Wins Super Bowl).

How cool would it be to analyze a preso point by point, second by second, to identify what really lit up the brains of the audience and when their attention flagged? And wouldn’t conference organizers love a tool that provided automated, honest feedback about which speakers put their paying attendees into a coma?

Such automated conference feedback isn’t really practical yet. But, if something as simple as a GSR bracelet turns out to be useful in the classroom, small scale deployment in commercial settings might not be that far off. In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for “on a scale of 1 to 10…” ratings and monitoring the body language of the people in front of me.

This project is certainly a baby step in improving classroom education, but it’s an interesting one. Student surveys can also indicate which teachers are more engaging, but may be biased by other factors such as likability, grading, etc. An unpopular, hard-grading teacher might actually hold the attention of students better than those who did well in student surveys. Biometric and other measurements should be able to bypass those factors and see if students are paying attention to what’s going on in the classroom.

I hope the Gates-funded Clemson study produces some interesting results that can be scaled to have a broader impact on the nation’s classrooms – objective metrics are sorely needed in this space.

  1. Interesting study. As a trainer, I’d love to hear the findings of this good study.

    Another interesting point : the resistance from teacher (demonstrated by an article by Diane Ravitch).

    I agree with you : Isn’t that exactly the point of the study? If a teacher can’t keep the students focused under these everyday conditions, that teacher isn’t performing. So why Diane opposes this study. Very funny.

  2. Jon says

    Pretty interesting stuff. I’m still hoping soon that new technology will revolutionize our education system. We will see.

  3. bbrian017 says

    I find it rather interesting how a teacher cans ay it’s not their job to make education engaging, what a joke, that teacher needs to get their self together. It’s a teachers job to nurture the minds of our next generation and it should be with care. But you do make a great point that it’s impossible to maintain that level of engagement all time everyday as the student would be extremely exhausted. So would the teacher…

  4. Elina Kanan says

    We agree Roger. The end goal for the majority of parents and educators is to make the most out of their students’ learning. This starts with researching and understanding the environment. It is no different than when researchers study environmental factors to determine potential causes of autism. The Affectiva Q Sensors (GSR bracelets) that Clemson is using will be able to show the exact times when students are most stimulated and engaged and when these reactions decline. With this information, researchers can determine what’s working to engage students; and not only when improvements should be made but actually at what the exact time these improvements/changes should be implemented. This study should be encouraged, not discouraged from all educators, like Diane Ravitch.

  5. Jake @ idahorealestate says

    Very Great Post. I have to say when being a student learning to study only came easy to those who wanted to learn. Most students now a day only want to be at home playing XBOX. Your talk about getting the audiences attention is a very big key factor. And i can tell you’re great at it because of you’re blog. Thank you.

  6. Jessica says

    You know, I think that maybe if teachers were paid like keynote speakers, maybe it would be worth their while to learn how to engage like keynote speakers, but since they are paid like low level peons…
    I know several teachers. They do their best to keep their students engaged in the lessons. They purchase supplies out of their own pockets because the school says it can’t afford to pay for them. They try to make their lessons interesting. However, teaching children, who are forced to be there, is harder than teaching adults, who have paid to see you speak.
    Basically, my point is that unless you have walked the walk in a grade or high school class, you know exactly jack about what it takes. Don’t hate on someone that is bringing up valid points even if she doesn’t clearly state all of the background information.

  7. Roger Dooley says

    Jessica, I agree some teachers aren’t well compensated, particularly in parochial schools. Some public school teachers do quite well, others less so. The point is that many teachers seem to resist objective measures of their work. They are paid based on factors like seniority and education level, both mostly irrelevant in the real world where results are the only thing that counts.

    I guarantee you that any school system that tried to implement a system like Jack Welch’s “differentiation” (which rewards high performers and terminates the bottom ten percent each year) would meet with enormous resistance from teachers and their unions.

    By the way, most conference speakers other than the main keynotes are not compensated at all, but are still graded by the audience and organizers.

  8. Gerard says

    Hi Roger,

    Thank for this post. Until reading your post I didn’t have any idea about the word Neuromarketing, but after this reading I feel more informed. Though I see you have written over 800 posts on this subject, I assume there is even more to learn. I will bookmark the page to learn more..

    Thanks again,

    Best regards,


  9. Ayodele says

    I am a high school Math teacher in Atlanta, GA. I would like to open my classroom for testing this technology. I am always looking for ways to quantify engagement in my classrooms.

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