July 2020 research round-up

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

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The value of professional development in the Science of Learning

Many commonly used teaching practices lack a scientific evidence base, but may be adopted because it is normal teacher behavior, or because personal experience suggests they are effective.. These practices are termed performative – they are based on perceived student performance, but typically lack a rigorous evidence base.

In this study, teachers undertook a 90-minute professional development course on the science of learning. Prior to and following the course, the teachers completed a survey measuring how useful they considered scientific versus performative approaches. The science of learning course increased the value teachers placed in understanding scientific learning concepts, and decreased the perceived value of performative teaching concepts; these changes persisted for 6-12 weeks after the course. The authors suggest that a series of professional development courses, which include science of learning training, might help counter performative teacher practices.

Howard-Jones et al. (2020) Professional development on the science of learning and teachers’ performative thinking – a pilot study. Mind, Brain and Education DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12254

How our views on intelligence shape our learning

Students vary in their approaches to study, with self-regulation and self-monitoring practices having important implications for learning. In this paper, researchers looked at whether students’ beliefs on the fixed or malleable nature of intelligence affected how they studied, and whether that influenced learning outcomes.

Participants read fake psychology articles that supported either a fixed or malleable nature of intelligence. This led to differences in how the two participant groups viewed intelligence, and thus their approach to self-regulated study: specifically, participants who subscribed to a theory of malleable intelligence were more likely to re-study the most difficult items. As a result, these learners performed better in a re-test. Thus learners’ beliefs on the rigidity of intelligence affect how they regulate their own study, with implications for learning outcomes.

Peng and Tullis (2020) Theories of intelligence influence self-regulated study choices and learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 46(3): 487-496 DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000740

Individual differences in the development of working memory

Our capacity for working memory is an important predictor of academic success, but it remains poorly understood how working memory develops alongside other cognitive abilities, and how individual differences in working memory are reflected in the brain.

In this large study of 9 to 10-year-olds, the authors confirm that working memory correlates with language skills, fluid intelligence, as well as episodic and short-term memory. They also identify a neural signature of working memory in children, namely specific activation in frontal and parietal cortices.

Importantly, the work also sets a baseline for future longitudinal studies of working memory development. The ~11,000 children in the cohort can be tracked until they are 19-20, meaning the researchers will be able to measure how working memory, and its neural correlates, develop alongside other cognitive capacities, all during the crucial schooling years.

Rosenberg et al. (2020) Behavioral and neural signatures of working memory in childhood. Journal of Neuroscience 40(26): 5090-5104. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2841-19.2020

Manipulating memory with deep brain stimulation

Regulating brain activity to manipulate memory could be useful in managing disorders like Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder. This perspective article analyses the prospects of deep brain stimulation (DBS), an invasive technique that requires surgery, in addressing memory problems in people with severe cases of memory-related medical conditions.

In a survey of the literature, the authors make note of the widely variable results to date. They suggest that more nuanced stimulation, which mimics or augments the brain’s natural memory processing activity, will be important in generating reliable effects. They also discuss studies showing the promise of (non-invasive) brain stimulation during sleep, when memory consolidation occurs.

Although the authors consider DBS promising for memory-based disorders, they acknowledge that many challenges remain and that ethical considerations should factor into when, and for whom, such an intervention is warranted.

Mankin and Fried (2020) Modulation of human memory by deep brain stimulation of the entorhinal-hippocampal circuitry. Neuron 106(2): P218-235 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2020.02.024

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