September 2018 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world
Published in Neuroscience
September 2018 research round-up

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Protecting the brain from distraction

Distracted students learn inefficiently, meaning that maintaining student engagement can help improve learning outcomes. In this study, Israeli researchers reveal a role for the claustrum – a thin sheet of cells previously hypothesised as the ‘seat of consciousness’ – in protecting against distraction.

Using genetic techniques, the authors were able to selectively silence a subset of cells in the mouse claustrum. This decreased the animals’ ability to ignore distractions, and thus lowered performance levels in two different behavioral tasks. If the same cells were activated rather than silenced, neural activity in the cortex was suppressed. This suggests that cells in the claustrum help maintain attention by suppressing stimuli that are unrelated to the task at hand.

Atlan et al. (2018) The claustrum supports resilience to distraction. Current Biology DOI:

Individual differences in the testing effect

Retrieving something from memory, as during a test, is a more effective way to learn than re-studying the same material. This so-called ‘testing effect’ is well-known. What is less appreciated is how individual differences might influence this phenomenon.

In this study, researchers found that the benefits of the testing effect depend both on a person’s fluid intelligence, and on the difficulty of the task. Specifically, people who rated highly in fluid intelligence gained more benefit in difficult than easy tasks, while the opposite was true for people with low fluid intelligence scores. Interestingly the authors also found that one third of volunteers performed better when re-studying, versus when they were re-tested (i.e. counter to the testing effect).

Overall, the study shows that the benefits of retrieval practice (i.e. the testing effect) are not homogeneous. The authors suggest this heterogeneity might depend on whether individuals tend to use shallow or deep learning strategies.

Minear et al. (2018) The benefits of retrieval practice depend on item difficulty and intelligence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 44(9): 1474-1486. DOI:

Motivating students to learn

If students can see how course material is relevant to their own lives – i.e. its ‘utility value’ (UV) – they can be more motivated to learn. In this study of students in an introductory biology course, researchers found that students could improve their course grades by writing essays on how the subject material related to their own lives. In addition, the intervention made students more likely to continue with biology courses and their STEM major.

The researchers also found that the timing of the intervention matters. For students with a history of poor subject performance, it is better to give the intervention early in the semester. In contrast, students with strong performance benefit more if the intervention is given late in the semester.

Canning et al. (2018) Improving performance and retention in introductory biology with a utility-value intervention. Journal of Educational Psychology 110(6): 834-849. DOI:

Updating memories without over-writing them

Our brains can keep similar memories separate, while also combining information to update our knowledge. These abilities seem to be at odds. We know that the hippocampus is responsible for keeping our memories separate, but what we don’t know is how it can also help integrate new information.

To find out, researchers used state-of-the-art, high-resolution fMRI to show that when we recall a memory, the hippocampus outsources some of its work to a region called the entorhinal cortex. The recalled memory – temporarily travelling in the entorhinal cortex – can then combine with new information before re-entering the hippocampus as a new, integrated experience. This suggests that combining new information with old memories – a core feature of our learning – occurs outside the hippocampus.

Koster et al. (2018) Big-loop recurrence within the hippocampal system supports integration of information across episodes. Neuron 99: 1342-1354 DOI:

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