January 2021 research round-up

The latest research highlights in learning and education

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Motivation has its limits in school

Traits like motivation, emotional control, impulsiveness, and family and social environment can all affect a student’s academic performance. In this study, psychosocial factors like these were assessed in over 3000 grade 7-9 students, and their contribution to academic performance was tracked until grades 11-12.

The authors found that grade 11-12 performance wasn’t affected much by these psychosocial factors, once the student’s sex and prior performance were considered. But for students already performing at a high level in grades 7-9, strong motivation and a supportive social environment predicted even better performance in grades 11-12. Unfortunately no such benefit was seen in low-achieving grade 7-9 students.

Kuo Y-L et al. (2021) The moderating effects of psychosocial factors on achievements gains: a longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology 113(1): 138-156 DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000471

Ingroup vs. Outgroup learning

Humans routinely learn from watching others, observing the actions they perform and the outcomes produced. Not all observational learning is the same though: previous work has shown that we learn better when watching people from our own social group (ingroup), rather than people from a social outgroup.

Here, researchers disentangle the reasons for this differential ingroup vs. outgroup learning. They found that learners placed less weight on the actions of outgroup vs. ingroup agents, but there was no such distinction for the learning outcomes of the two groups. This difference correlated with activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex.

Kang et al. (2021) Why we learn less from observing outgroups. Journal of Neuroscience 41(1): 144-152 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0926-20.2020

Brainstem modulation of HPC and memory consolidation

During sleep our brain activity transitions through different stages. During REM sleep, for example, the hippocampus shows low frequency theta waves, but during non-REM sleep, high frequency ripple oscillations are present and help consolidate memories.

In this study of macaque monkeys, researchers show that brainstem structures are critical in coordinating these activity patterns in the hippocampus. Two distinct types of brainstem activity were selectively linked to ripples and theta patterns in the hippocampus. According to the authors, this suggests that inputs from the brainstem coordinate hippocampal activity transitions during sleep, providing windows for memory consolidation.

Ramirez-Villegas et al. (2021) Coupling of hippocampal theta and ripples with pontogeniculooccipital waves. Nature 589: 96-102 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2914-4

How does motivation drive learning?

A leading theory linking motivation and learning is that intrinsic, self-determined motivation leads to more robust learning than extrinsic, imposed motivation. However, this Self-Determination Theory has its critics.

In this perspective article, the authors incorporate the cognitive neuroscience of learning to propose instead that motivation depends on the prospects of reward and punishment, with reward driving more robust, associational memories. Noting the reward structures built into video games, and the relative lack of punishment within them (you always get a chance to start the game again, unlike with classroom tests and exams), they suggest that gamification of learning in classrooms might engender the type of reward-oriented motivation suited for strong, relational memory formation.

Luria et al. (2020) Cognitive neuroscience perspectives on motivation and learning: revisiting self-determination theory. Mind, Brain and Education DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12275

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute

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