October 2019 research round-up

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

Surprises lurk in the silence of slow-wave sleep

Memories are consolidated during slow-wave sleep, as experiences are replayed in the form of neural activity. Slow-wave sleep involves alternating periods of high and low activity, and consolidation is thought to take place when activity is high. By contrast, low activity periods may allow synapses to recover for the next burst of activity.

Now researchers have shown that quiet periods of slow-wave sleep include brief bursts of synchronised activity. In this experiment, the active cells were the same cells involved in a spatial memory task undertaken earlier that day. This indicates that the (mostly) quiet periods during slow-wave sleep may be important for memory consolidation, challenging previous thoughts.

Todorova and Zugaro (2019) Isolated cortical computations during delta waves support memory consolidation. Science 366: 377-381 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aay0616

Designing multiple choice tests to help learning

Tests provide a way to assess student knowledge, but they can also help improve learning via the testing effect. Not all tests are equal in this regard though – by allowing guessing, multiple choice tests can potentially bypass the benefits of retrieval practice. However, if the alternatives are plausible and the questions well-constructed, multiple choice tests can require deep thought and a process of elimination. This can prompt retrieval practice both for the correct and incorrect alternatives.

As shown in this study, the result is strengthened memories for all plausible alternatives. The authors therefore encourage teachers to use well-constructed multiple choice tests, with plausible incorrect alternatives, as a way to strengthen memories for related concepts and information.

Little et al. (2019) The role of retrieval in answering multiple-choice questions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 45(8): 1473-1485 DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000638

Mindfulness correlates with academic achievement

Mindfulness – a state of self-awareness and purposeful attention – can help both cognitive and social-emotional abilities. The concept has received little attention in educational settings, although mindfulness training has shown benefits for reading comprehension and working memory capacity.

In this study, mindfulness was measured in over 2000 Grade 5-8 students and correlated with academic achievement, as assessed by grade point average and standardised tests. The authors find a clear positive relationship between mindfulness scores and academic achievement. This raises the possibility that interventions to improve mindfulness may be worthwhile interventions in academic settings, particular for students who struggle to concentrate.

Caballero et al. (2019) Greater mindfulness is associated with better academic achievement in middle school. Mind, Brain, and Education 13(3): 157-166 DOI https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12200

Different benefits for spacing versus amount of practice

Retrieving items from memory helps consolidate those memories. While it is well-known that spacing retrieval events across days or weeks produces more robust learning than if retrieval is massed, there is less agreement on whether the amount of practice is also a factor.

In this study of university-level mathematics students, the impact of amount and spacing of testing was compared both within semester and across semesters. While increasing the amount of retrieval (e.g. multiple questions on the same learning objective, within the same test) improved within-semester performance, the benefit did not last until the following semester. Increasing retrieval spacing (e.g. questions on the same learning objective spread across different tests) improved performance both within and across semesters.

The results suggest that for long-term retention, spaced testing is more important than the amount of testing. This indicates that curricula should be designed to encourage spaced retrieval, for example by distributing homework and tests of similar material across weeks.

Lyle et al. (2019) How the amount and spacing of retrieval practice affect the short- and long-term retention of mathematics knowledge. Educational Psychology Review DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09489-x