November 2020 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world

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Online researcher-teacher collaboration

In education, collaboration between researchers and teachers can improve classroom practices. In this study, teachers worked with researchers to co-design and implement a randomized controlled trial into a self-control intervention for children aged 7- to 12-years old. All interactions between teachers and researchers were conducted online. The study showed that children trained to resist interference improved their performance in an inhibitory control task. This confirms previous findings, but importantly, it also shows that online interactions between researchers and non-researchers – in which the non-researchers participate in study design as well as data collection – can be enough to carry out a randomized controlled trial and produce useful, valid results.

Letang et al. (2020) Bridging the gap between the lab and the classroom: an online citizen scientific research project with teachers aiming at improving inhibitory control of school-age children. Mind, Brain, and Education DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12272

Linking dyslexia to the rhythms of the brain

Dyslexia presents a learning challenge to the ~7% of schoolchildren who are affected. The neural signatures of dyslexia include a reduction in the ~30 Hz gamma oscillation, but it has not been clear whether this deficit causes difficulties in word processing.

Here, researchers show that 20 minutes of non-invasive electrical stimulation (transcranial alternating current stimulation; tACS) temporarily restores the gamma oscillation in adults with dyslexia, leading to improved reading performance immediately afterwards. This suggests that the 30 Hz gamma signal is causative in the phonological processing deficit seen in dyslexics, and that non-invasively stimulating the dyslexic brain can temporarily restore normal levels of reading performance.

Marchesotti et al. (2020) Selective enhancement of low-gamma activity by tACS improves phonemic processing and reading accuracy in dyslexia. PLoS Biology DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000833

Preventing positive feedback loops in synaptic plasticity

Long-term potentiation (LTP) is a form of plasticity that produces long-lasting increases in the strength of synapses. However, because of the requirements for generating LTP, increasing the strength of synapses can favor even more LTP, creating a positive feedback loop and runaway LTP. How do our brains avoid this destabilizing possibility?

In this study, researchers show that when LTP is generated at an excitatory synapse, new receptors are moved from extrasynaptic regions to the neuron’s inhibitory synapses. This balances the increase in excitation with a boost in inhibition, and prevents the positive feedback process. The authors speculate that this type of balancing inhibition could help stabilize memories.

Davenport et al. (2020) Relocation of an extrasynaptic GABAA receptor to inhibitory synapses freezes excitatory synaptic strength and preserves memory. Neuron DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2020.09.037

Is homework becoming less useful?

How effective is homework? According to this study, it really depends how you approach it. The temptation for students – possible for homework but not exam conditions – is to google the correct answers, rather than accessing their own memory for relevant information.

Here, in an 11-year study of college students, the researchers compared student performance in online homework questions to performance in exams covering the same material. Students who copied answers (for example from the internet) during homework ultimately performed worse than their peers in subsequent exams. Moreover, the proportion of students who copied their answers increased from ~15% to ~50% between 2008 and 2017. This trend – albeit documented only for a single course in this study – is ultimately costing students through poorer learning and worse exam performance.

Glass and Kang (2020) Fewer students are benefiting from doing their homework: an eleven-year study. Educational Psychology DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2020.1802645

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute

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