May 2019 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world

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Creating new knowledge by integrating information

As we learn, we connect facts, ideas and concepts that can result in new knowledge: if told that the cost of living in Switzerland is high, and that Zurich is Switzerland’s largest city, you could infer that living in Zurich is expensive. Although people vary in their ability to derive new information this way, the underlying cognitive traits are not well understood.

In this study, researchers tested children and adults for their ability to self-derive new knowledge from separate passages of text. They also conducted various cognitive tests and collected academic performance measures. Vocabulary and reading comprehension were the best predictors of self-derivation performance, with working memory also important in adults. The ability to self-derive new knowledge correlated positively with academic performance, suggesting its importance for classroom learning.

Varga et al. (2019) Cognitive correlates of memory integration across development: Explaining variability in an educationally relevant phenomenon. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 148(4): 739-762. DOI:

Mechanisms of associative memory recall

Our memories are built on associations – someone says “Paris” and we think “Eiffel Tower”. How this associative recall occurs in the human brain is unclear, but one hypothesis is that the hippocampus acts as a memory index, triggering associative recall by activating downstream activity in the cortex.

In this study, participants briefly studied pairs of images. When later shown one of the two images, participants had to recall the associated partner image. Meanwhile, researchers recorded individual neurons in the hippocampus, as well as population activity in downstream cortical areas. Successful recall was associated with a characteristic increase in the activity of cells in the hippocampus. Shortly after this increase in activity, a representation of the successfully recalled image could be decoded from the cortex. These experiments support the concept of the hippocampus as an index for associative memory recall.

Staresina et al. (2019) Recollection in the human hippocampal-entorhinal cell circuitry. Nature Communications 10: 1503 DOI:

Rewarding experiences are preferentially consolidated in memory

Rewarding experiences are typically ones we want to reproduce, and therefore tend to be better remembered than non-rewarded experiences. According to this research, the reward-related memory boost is due, at least in part, to processes occurring during memory consolidation.

Memory consolidation occurs during rest periods after learning, when the hippocampus replays neural patterns that occurred during the learning experience. In this study, the authors first confirmed that rats exhibited a learning preference for rewarding experiences, as they learned the location of large rewards better than of small rewards. Next, they showed that in rest periods, experiences of large rewards were preferentially replayed. Finally, by blocking replay, they showed that the preference for large rewards was reduced. Together, this work reveals that reward enhances memory in part by promoting neural replay and consolidation during rest.

Michon et al. (2019) Post-learning hippocampal replay selectively reinforces spatial memory for highly rewarded locations. Current Biology 29(9) P1436-1444 DOI:

How making errors helps learning

Making errors can aid learning, but it is unclear why. In this study using foreign vocabulary word pairs, researchers tested whether making errors helps learning by affecting memory retrieval or memory encoding.

In a series of experiments to distinguish these possibilities, the authors show that making errors increased learners’ curiosity, thereby helping them encode the memory when later given the correct answer. Thus even when learners respond incorrectly, the error-making process can help by promoting their curiosity and motivation to learn. The authors suggest that students could be tested even before they have learned material, with the errors they make potentially driving curiosity and thus helping later learning.

Potts et al. (2019) The benefit of generating errors during learning: what is the locus of the effect? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 45(6): 1023-1041 DOI:

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute