October 2020 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world

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Media multitasking linked to poorer attention and memory

Social and digital media distractions vie for our attention and make sustained concentration a challenge. With so much media at our fingertips, many of us routinely engage in “media multitasking” (MMT) - for example watching TV while surfing the web on a laptop and flicking through social media on our phones. Does this penchant for switching between media have lasting effects on our ability to concentrate, or even remember?

According to this study of young adults, the answer is yes. People who self-reported high MMT levels were more likely to show the neural signatures of waning attention during a memory task. They also then performed worse in the memory task than people who did less media multitasking. While the study did not address causality, many of us probably recognise how the rise of digital media has led to our own attention deficits.

Madore et al. (2020) Memory failure predicted by attention lapsing and media multitasking. Nature DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2870-z

Male and female differences in learning

An individual’s learning performance depends not just on their innate ability, but also on the strategies they adopt. In this study of reward learning in mice, researchers found that females and males adopted different learning strategies, with females learning more quickly as a result.

Male mice switched strategy frequently, making choices that were heavily biased by recently rewarded outcomes. In contrast, females took a more consistent and systematic approach to the task, which allowed them to learn more quickly. Although their learning in this task was slower, the male mice ultimately reached performance parity with the females. Given earlier work showing that habitual or repetitive choice behaviors are enhanced in females, the authors ask whether such sex differences might be advantageous for the survival of the species.

Chen et al. (2020) Divergent strategies for learning in males and females. Current Biology DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.09.075

Stress can be good for you!

School and college students can deal with a lot of stress, potentially harming their academic performance. But stress can also motivate people to try harder and “rise to the occasion”. In this study of college students, researchers categorised these types of stress as either hindering (for example the perceived irrelevance of work, or not knowing what is expected of them) or challenging (for example the difficulty or workload of a class), respectively.

Whereas hindering stress was linked to poorer performance, challenge stress was associated with better performance. According to the authors, the ability to control stress is the key determinant of whether its effects are beneficial or harmful. They suggest designing academic environments in a way that promotes challenging stress (for example by workload or test difficulty) but avoids hindering stress (for example by providing clear goals).

Travis et al. (2020) Some stress is good stress: The challenge-hindrance framework, academic self-efficacy, and academic outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology 112(8): 1632-1643. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000478

How parent and teacher enthusiasm for STEM helps students

The enthusiasm that parents and teachers show towards STEM subjects can affect a child’s views on learning, and potentially their performance. In this study, parent and teacher enthusiasm for STEM was assessed by surveying final year high school students in Sweden – for example, asking whether students whether their parents discussed recent scientific discoveries with them, or watched science documentaries. The study also tracked students’ intrinsic motivation and grade point average.

The findings revealed that students with enthusiastically engaged parents and teachers were more motivated in STEM subjects, and performed better in those classes. The authors recommend parents and teachers find ways to show authentic enthusiasm for science, as a way to improve students’ learning outcomes.

Jungert et al. (2020) Examining how parent and teacher enthusiasm influences motivation and achievement in STEM. The Journal of Educational Research 113(4): 275-282 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.2020.1806015

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute

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