August 2021 research round-up

The latest research highlights in learning and education
Published in Neuroscience
August 2021 research round-up

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Effects of the COVID-19-induced shift to online learning in China

COVID-19 brought about abrupt shifts in the delivery of education, with schools and universities forced to rapidly shift from face-to-face teaching to online teaching. We are now discovering more about the impacts of this disruption on student learning.

In this study, researchers used data from two large exams sat by Chinese primary and secondary school students. The first exam, conducted at the end of 2019, was considered “pre-COVID”. The next semester’s exam, in 2020, followed an extended period of online learning, and was considered “post-COVID”. This meant exam results could allow comparison of pre-pandemic face-to-face learning with online learning. The authors found that pre-COVID performance was significantly better, with initially high-scoring students regressing after the period of online learning. Furthermore, the performance gap between urban and rural students widened after teaching was forced online.

Feng et al. (2021) Comparison of the effect of online teaching during COVID-19 and pre-pandemic traditional teaching in compulsory education. The Journal of Educational Research 114(4): 307-316 DOI:

What makes feedback constructive?

Providing learners with feedback is essential for helping them improve. But what makes feedback constructive? While the right sort of feedback can encourage learning, criticism might also negatively affect confidence and motivation. This could depend on the content of the feedback, the way it is delivered, or the student’s mindset.

In this study, college students rated how specific and ‘friendly’ (i.e. positive, polite, praise-oriented) feedback statements were. A separate group of students then rated the same statements for their constructiveness, and answered questions about their individual learning goals and writing abilities. The study found that feedback specificity, but not friendliness, aided constructiveness. In fact, the best combination of feedback was specific but not overly friendly. This was especially true for students who wanted to understand content, not just pass a test.

Fong et al. (2021) Making feedback constructive: the interplay of undergraduates’ motivation with perceptions of feedback specificity and friendliness. Educational Psychology DOI:

Does combining retrieval practice with concept mapping work?

Retrieval practice – attempting to recall to-be-learned information – has well-established, positive effects on learning. Some studies also suggest benefits of concept mapping, which involves drawing node-and-link diagrams that depict relations between ideas, terms and concepts. Could combining the two strategies provide an even bigger benefit?

According to this study, the answer is no. Learners were given biology texts and studied either with retrieval practice, concept mapping, or concept mapping followed by retrieval practice. Concept mapping enhanced learning compared to a “study by reading” condition, but retrieval practice was superior. Combining concept mapping and retrieval practice provided no additional benefit. The authors conclude by questioning the merits of using concept mapping as a learning tool.

O’Day and Karpicke (2021) Comparing and combining retrieval practice and concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology 113(5): 986-997. DOI:

Ripples and recall

Since the surgery performed on H.M. in 1953, we have known the hippocampus is needed for autobiographical memories, particularly those formed recently. In this study, researchers show the hippocampus also plays a role in remote autobiographical recall, as well as in retrieving semantic information, or facts.

In recordings from epileptic patients undergoing exploratory surgery, the researchers observed a distinctive hippocampal activity pattern – termed ‘ripples’ – as participants searched their memories for autobiographical or factual information. Not all ripples were the same: they occurred more strongly for remote than recent autobiographical recall, and were similar in nature for remote and semantic recall. The authors suggest ripples might contribute to how our autobiographical memories are gradually abstracted into generalizable factual, or semantic, memories.

Norman et al. (2021) Hippocampal ripples and their coordinated dialogue with the default mode network during recent and remote recollection. Neuron 109(17): P2767-2780.E5 DOI:

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