July 2019 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world
July 2019 research round-up

Effective teacher professional development

Teacher professional development (PD) serves to improve student learning outcomes. Surprisingly, experimental studies demonstrating that PD is effective in this regard, and why it is effective, are lacking. Here, researchers compared two types of PD – video-based analysis of exemplar classroom teaching, and study to deepen content knowledge – to determine which was more effective and why.

Because it emphasized teaching practices, video-based analysis of teaching was found to be more beneficial to student outcomes than PD focused on content knowledge. The authors conclude that teacher professional development should prioritise improved teacher practices over deepening of content knowledge.

Roth et al. (2019) Comparing the effects of analysis-of-practice and content-based professional development on teacher and student outcomes in science. American Education Research Journal 56(4): 1217-1253 DOI: 


Learning involves new patterns of neural activity

In this study, scientists use a brain–computer interface (BCI) in monkeys to show that learning can involve the creation of new neural activity patterns. The BCI translates activity from around 90 neurons into the movement of a computer cursor: different activity patterns direct the cursor in different directions. Next, the researchers change the algorithm for how activity patterns relate to cursor movement. As a result, the monkey struggles to move the cursor in the desired direction. Gradually the monkey can relearn, however. Crucially, the researchers show that this learning is not the result of existing activity patterns being repurposed to move the cursor in a new direction. Instead, brand new activity patterns emerge as the animal learns.

Oby et al. (2019) New neural activity patterns emerge with long-term learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1820296116

The benefits of keeping students in the dark

Being uncertain makes us curious, which can help learning. Intentionally promoting student uncertainty might therefore be beneficial. The risk in doing so is that it can produce negative feelings in learners, such as self-doubt. In this study, researchers wanted to know when uncertainty could help learning, and whether expecting uncertainty would minimize negative feelings.

As anticipated, when students expected to encounter uncertainty, their negative feelings were reduced. However, uncertainty – in this case, not knowing the formula for a scientific concept when asked to solve a problem – did not lead to greater learning of that concept. Instead, the beneficial effect of uncertainty was improved transfer of knowledge to new situations. The authors conclude that uncertainty can promote curiosity and learning transfer, and that telling students to expect uncertainty can protect against negative emotions.

Lamnina and Chase (2019) Developing a thirst for knowledge: How uncertainty in the classroom influences curiosity, affect, learning and transfer. Contemporary Educational Psychology 59: 101785 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2019.101785

Spines on inhibitory neurons promote plasticity

Most studies of synaptic plasticity focus on inputs to excitatory neurons, which receive synapses onto small protrusions called spines. Synaptic plasticity onto inhibitory neurons, which make up ~20% of all neurons but mostly lack spines, has received less attention.

In this study, researchers looked at whether a common subtype of inhibitory neuron (PV) in a hippocampal subregion also displayed plasticity, and what role spines may play. Although PV neurons were mostly aspiny, the authors noticed spines in locations that lacked a perineuronal net (PNN). When the researchers created behavioral conditions favoring plasticity, the proportion of spiny PV neurons increased, as did the strength of synapses onto them. Their results show that spines can form on PV neurons where the PNN is absent, and that they contribute to behaviourally induced plasticity.

Foggetti et al. (2019) Spiny and non-spiny parvalbumin-positive hippocampal interneurons show different plastic properties. Cell Reports 27(13): P3725-3732.E4. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2019.05.098