June 2016 research round-up

A digest of the latest research relating to the science of learning from around the world.

Go to the profile of Alan Woodruff
Jun 30, 2016
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Understanding learning propensities

Some people learn more easily than others. The questions of why and what can be done about it are central concerns in education. Two recent studies have shown that resting brain activity, measured before training on a task, can accurately predict how easily a person learns. Understanding students’ learning propensities might result in better-tailored teaching instructions.

Parlez-vous Français: differences in language learning speed

The first study, by researchers at the University of Washington, required participants – none of whom had any French language skills —to take French courses. Prior to the lessons, commercially available electroencephalography (EEG) headsets were used to record resting brain activity. As expected, some people were able to progress more quickly through the lessons than others, even as their performance within each lesson remained as high as those who learned more slowly. The EEG recordings were able to predict 60 per cent of the variability in learning acquisition speed, with activity in the brain’s language areas being most predictive.

Prat et al. (2016) Resting-state qEEG predicts rate of second language learning in adults. Brain and Language 157-158: 44-50

Neuroimaging to predict musical learning speed

In the second study, resting-state fMRI recordings were shown to be predictive of how quickly participants learned to play the piano. As well as looking at how well pre-learning, resting-state brain activity could predict learning, this study also investigated how brain function changed during learning. Interestingly, the brain regions that changed during learning —those that exhibited neuroplasticity —were different to those that predicted learning speed.

Herholz et al. (2016) Dissociation of neural networks for predisposition and for training-related plasticity in auditory-motor learning. Cerebral Cortex 26(7): 3125-3134

Enhancing memory recall: A zap to the brain helps rats learn

A study in Nature Neuroscience by Michaël Zugaro and colleagues from Collège de France in Paris has shown enhanced memory recall in rats by using electrical stimulation. After a memory is formed, it must be consolidated for long-term storage. This is thought to coincide with movement of the memory from the hippocampus to the cerebral cortex, a process that some think depends on synchronized brain waves in the two structures. To test this idea, rats were trained to learn a task sub-optimally. Compared to normal learning, sub-optimal learning caused less synchronized activity between hippocampus and cortex when the animal slept the following night, specifically during slow-wave sleep (SWS). The researchers hypothesized that by increasing synchrony during SWS, using electrical activation of the cortex, the memory would be enhanced —which is precisely what they found. The study shows that memory consolidation during sleep not only requires a dialog between the hippocampus and cortex, but that it depends on specific brain wave activity. What’s more, under the conditions of the experiment, memory could be artificially enhanced by stimulating the cortex and promoting those brain waves.

Maingret et al. (2016) Hippocampo-cortical coupling mediates memory consolidation during sleep. Nature Neuroscience 19: 959-964

The learner as teacher in complex mathematics problem-solving

Education researchers at McGill University have shown that a learning-by-teaching intervention improves learning outcomes during complex mathematics problem solving. Elementary students were assigned to one of two groups: learning by preparing to teach, or learning for learning (the control condition). Researchers then compared students’ conceptualizations (task definitions) of the problem, self-regulatory processes, and mathematics achievement. The study found that students in the group who learned by preparing to teach developed a more detailed and better-organized concept map of the problem, engaged in more metacognitive processing strategies and had higher levels of mathematics problem solving achievement compared with students in the control condition.

Muis et al. (2016) Learning by preparing to teach: Fostering self-regulatory processes and achievement during complex mathematics problem solving. Journal of Educational Psychology 108: 474-492

Go to the profile of Alan Woodruff

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute

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