October 2018 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world

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Longer text explanations don’t help memory recall

Textbooks are widely used resources for learning. Most utilise so-called elaborations – details that support the main ideas and concepts, such as further explanations and examples – to enhance learning. However, text elaborations mean that learners spend more time not directly studying the main ideas.

In this study, Daley and Rawson asked whether elaborations actually improve learning (as assessed by tests for cued recall and comprehension of the main ideas), and whether the extra time spent reading offsets any learning gains. They found that participants spent less time reading the shorter unelaborated material, with no performance deficit compared to the elaborated material. The authors conclude that elaborations of core ideas and concepts may not be beneficial, and that limiting text to the main messages may be a preferable option given the lower time requirements.

Daley and Rawson (2018) Elaborations in expository text impose a substantial time cost but do not enhance learning. Educational Psychology Review https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-018-9451-9

Stability and change in plasticity ensembles

Learning requires changes to neural networks, but the long-term dynamics of how memories are represented at the population level is not well understood. To investigate this, Attardo and colleagues tracked the activity of thousands of hippocampal neurons for up to one month as mice repeatedly visited the same environment.

Successive visits activated similar but distinguishable groups of neurons, meaning the brain’s representation of the environment evolved with each visit. At first, the differences between back-to-back visits were quite large, which would help distinguish individual memories. After several visits to the same environment, however, the group of active neurons converged towards a core representation. These results indicate how the brain may encode similar events in memory – via distinguishable, evolving representations – while at the same time allowing a stable, long-term memory to form.

Attardo et al. (2018) Long-term consolidation of ensemble neural plasticity patterns in hippocampal area CA1. Cell Reports 25(3): P640-650.E2 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2018.09.064

RNA changes assist memory

Synaptic plasticity, which is necessary for memory, requires changes in gene expression. These changes can be controlled by chemical modifications to DNA and RNA, which tag genes for attention by ‘reader’ proteins. When reader proteins detect these tags, they can bind to the chemical groups and regulate transcription and translation.

In this study, Shi and colleagues show that a particular reader protein, named YTHDF1, controls the translation of RNA transcripts and contributes to learning and memory in mice. The effects of YTHDF1 are triggered by neural activity, indicating a mechanism for activity-dependent RNA translation. Mice without Ythdf1 have impaired neuronal communication, impaired synaptic plasticity, and deficits in learning.

Shi et al. (2018) m6A facilitates hippocampus-dependent learning and memory through YTHDF1. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0666-1

Teaching self-regulated learning

How well learners learn is not just based on their intelligence, the number of hours spent studying, or teacher quality. Learners also need to know how to self-regulate their own learning through good time-management, goal-setting, control of emotions and motivation, and awareness of their own learning processes.

Despite this well-established fact, Lawson and colleagues report that self-regulated learning (SRL) is not widely taught in classrooms. They argue that, contrary to evidence, many teachers see SRL strategies as naturally acquired, rather than something that can be instructed. They also report that teachers can lack self-belief in their ability to teach SRL strategies to students. As a result, students learn in inefficient, ineffective ways. The authors recommend efforts to change teacher beliefs around the teaching of self-regulated learning strategies – potentially during pre-service teacher training – to help improve student learning outcomes.

Lawson et al. (2018) Teachers’ and students’ belief systems about the self-regulation of learning. Educational Psychology Review https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-018-9453-7

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute