January 2020 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world
Published in Neuroscience
January 2020 research round-up

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What is wrong with Educational Technology?

Written by a recent Editor of the journal Educational Technology Research and Development, this short opinion piece questions “why there seems to be so little progress in the field of educational technology.” In his view, not enough emphasis in education is placed on teaching students how to learn. In the field of educational technology, he suggests that researchers may be too preoccupied with the technology, rather than education: “Going forward, the focus should be on learning rather than on technology.” Spector points out that our cognitive processes can be trained, and argues that more effort be put into teaching students how to think, and how to learn.

Spector (2020) Remarks on progress in educational technology. Educational Technology Research and Development DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-020-09736-x

Can learning music help academic achievement?

Many students take music classes as part of their high school education. Given that few will make a career from music, might music class time be better spent learning academic subjects?

Taking into account confounding factors like previous academic achievement and socio-economic status, this study of over 100,000 students found that participation in high school music classes was linked to better grades in Mathematics, Science and English. The link was stronger for instrumental than vocal students, and music grades were a good predictor of academic grades.

The authors suggest that learning music trains cognitive processes like attention and working memory, as well as motivational characteristics like self-discipline, and that these traits can transfer to academic domains. They conclude that music learning may benefit academic performance and that music classes belong in the school curriculum.

Guhn et al. (2020) A population-level analysis of associations between school music participation and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology 112(2): 308-328 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000376

Forgetting about more than just neurons

In a phenomenon known as synaptic plasticity, synapses – the junctions between neurons – change with experience. Ever since synaptic plasticity was discovered, it has been the leading candidate for the biological basis of memory and learning, with most related research focusing on what happens between neurons. But there are lots of non-neuronal cells in the brain too – astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and microglia, for example - and these can influence what happens at synapses.

Here, the authors show that microglia - the immune cells of the brain - can regulate the stability of newly formed synapses in the adult brain, and thus the stability of a memory. Under ordinary circumstances, the microglia eliminate some of the synapses involved in a memory, contributing to forgetting. By destroying some of the microglia, the researchers could increase memory retention.

Wang et al. (2020) Microglia mediate forgetting via complement-dependent synaptic elimination. Science 367(6478): 688-694 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaz2288

Finding a balance between praise and admonishment

The teacher-student relationship relies on the authority of the teacher, and on the ability to control and encourage student behaviours. This can be done through praise, to reinforce good behaviours and student engagement, as well as through reprimand. Previous work has suggested that praise may be underutilised in the classroom, and conversely that reprimand may be used too often.

This study sought to determine if there was an optimum “praise-to-reprimand ratio”, or PRR, that helped students maintain on-task behaviour. Taking data from over 150 classrooms in the United States, the researchers showed benefits of a high PRR, in which students received more praise than reprimands. However they did not find evidence for an ideal or threshold PRR at which behaviour dramatically improved.

Caldarella et al. (2020) Effects of teachers’ praise-to-reprimand ratios on elementary students’ on-task behaviour. Educational Psychology DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2020.1711872

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