August 2018 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world

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How parental behaviour can affect children’s learning capacity

A child’s academic success is affected by their executive functions (EFs) – the ability to maintain or shift attention, control behavioral impulses, and hold information in working memory. Success is also influenced by parental factors, and there is some evidence that parental behaviors can even shape the development of a child’s EFs.

The purpose of this meta-analysis was to find out which parental behaviors might affect child EFs. It found that positive (e.g. warmth, sensitivity) and cognitive (e.g. encouraging the child’s independent thinking) parental behaviors were associated with improved EFs in the children, whereas negative behaviors (e.g. detachment, intrusiveness) were associated with poorer EFs.

Although correlational, this analysis suggests that parental behaviours shape the development of a child’s executive functions, which could have a significant impact on their school performance.

Valcan et al. (2018) Parental behaviours predicting early childhood executive functions: a meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review 30: 607-49 DOI:

Neural basis of recall benefits for spaced learning

Spaced learning produces well known benefits, but its biological roots are less understood. In this study, Ezzyat and colleagues investigated the neural changes that differentiate recall performance of spaced vs. massed learning.

The task was to learn word–object associations, with training done either in a single day or across two days. A test one week later confirmed that subjects’ performance was better for the pairs they learned across two days. fMRI results showed that two-day learning also led to more distinguishable activity patterns in the mPFC for each word–object pair, as compared to one-day learning.

The authors propose that some of the benefits of spaced learning are due to interactions between the hippocampus and mPFC, which lead to more distinct mPFC representations and thus enhanced recall.

Ezzyat et al. (2018) Differentiation of human medial prefrontal cortex activity underlies long-term resistance to forgetting in memory. Journal of Neuroscience DOI:

Evidence for publication bias in education research

In Education, the evidence for ‘what works’ is often conflicting. To help overcome this, researchers can carry out a meta-analysis, which combines several similar studies in an attempt to reach a consensus judgment. However, carrying out a good meta-analysis can be difficult because of publication bias, meaning a meta-analysis may over-estimate the effectiveness of a given educational intervention.

To test whether this was true, Chow and Ekholm conducted a meta-review – a meta-analysis of meta-analyses. The pair found evidence for publication bias amongst the Education studies they analysed – larger effects were found in published rather than unpublished studies. Policymakers and teaching practitioners should be aware that because of publication bias, the effectiveness of an intervention may be overestimated.

Chow and Ekholm (2018) Do published studies yield larger effect sizes than unpublished studies in Education and Special Education? A meta-review. Educaitonal Psychology Review 30: 727-744 DOI:


Prefrontal development shapes changes in memory from childhood to adulthood

The human prefrontal cortex (PFC) develops slowly, not reaching full maturity until adulthood. Given its roles in both the formation and retrieval of memories, this suggests that developmental changes in the PFC might lead to improved adult memory performance.

Tang et al. studied memory function in children, adolescents and adults after measuring fMRI signals during memory encoding. They found that age-related improvements in memory were at least partially caused by changes in PFC activity. The authors also observed age-related changes in the amount of co-activity between the PFC and other memory structures. Together, their results suggest that our memory capacity changes over development in part due to the maturation of PFC networks.

Tang et al. (2018) Prefrontal cortex contributions to the development of memory formation. Cerebral Cortex 28(9): 3295-3308 DOI:

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute