February 2021 research round-up

The latest research highlights in learning and education

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Mental rotation ability linked to mathematics skills

While there is evidence that spatial skills and mathematical ability are linked, it hasn’t been clear if that link is broad or restricted, for example to a particular type of spatial ability. In this study, 92 children aged 6-11 years did a series of different mental imagery tasks, including keeping an image in mind, rotating an image in mind, and estimating relative distances between image landmarks. Performance in these was compared to their performance in a basic arithmetic task. While age was unsurprisingly the best predictor of mathematics performance, mental rotation performance was also positively linked to this measure of mathematical ability. No other mental imagery task was correlated with arithmetic performance.

Bates et al. (2021) Reimagining mathematics: the role of mental imagery in explaining mathematical calculation skills in childhood. Mind, Brain and Education DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12281

Training in spatial skills improves mathematics performance

Another investigation into the link between spatial skills and mathematics performance, this study took a more direct approach by testing whether training in spatial skills could improve mathematics performance. Training, in Grade 1 (age 7 years) or Grade 6 (age 12) children, was in either spatial visualization (including but not limited to mental rotation), visual working memory (for example where on a screen did an image appear/disappear), or non-spatial language training as a control.

In contrast to the study above, both types of spatial skills (visualization and memory training) were linked to better mathematics performance, and this was true for both Grade 1 and Grade 6 children. The authors suggest that benefits for mathematics learning might be possible if children can be encouraged to intentionally make use of spatial reasoning.

Mix et al. (2021) Effects of spatial training on mathematics in first and sixth grade children. Journal of Educational Psychology 113(2): 304-314 DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000494

Visual learning in children versus adults

Are there differences in how children and adults learn a visual task, and how they deal with essential versus non-essential information? This study compared visual perceptual learning in children aged 7-10 years and adults aged 18-31 years. Participants viewed screens with an important feature in the center of the visual field, and irrelevant information in the surrounding area. Over several days of training, adults learned to suppress the irrelevant features in the surround. In contrast, children learned to enhance the irrelevant information – they performed better at knowing what was happening in the surrounding area, even though that was not the goal of the task. Although this seems counterproductive, children’s performance in the goal task was unaffected.

Frank et al. (2021) Fundamental differences in visual perceptual learning between children and adults. Current Biology 31(2): P427-432.E5 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.047

Neural circuits for short-term memory

Persistent neural activity is thought to be necessary for working memory, and could be achieved through positive feedback loops between groups of neurons. However it is not clear if the neurons engaged in these feedback loops share common features, or whether all neurons are welcome in these small subnetworks.

Here, researchers use light-based stimulation of small groups of neurons to show, firstly, that this can produce persistent activity that outlasts stimulation. Second, this activity led to behavioral biases, indicating an involvement in short-term memory. Finally, they show that the neurons linked by persistent activity share common features, such as being active during the same behavioral task. They propose that the brain uses highly connected subnetworks, in a sea of sparse connections, to maintain items in working memory.

Daie et al. (2021) Targeted photostimulation uncovers circuit motifs supporting short-term memory. Nature Neuroscience 24: 259-265 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-020-00776-3

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute