November 2018 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world
November 2018 research round-up

Brain mechanisms behind the spacing effect

Learning is more effective when information is acquired over multiple sessions spread out in time, rather than crammed together. The neurobiological basis of this effect – the spacing effect – is not well understood.

In this study, researchers imaged the brains of participants as they recalled word-object pairs that were learned either in a single day or across two days. The authors found that, for learning that occurred across two days, the brain activity pattern for a particular word-object pair could be more easily distinguished from the patterns for all other word-object pairs. Importantly, this greater pattern differentiation correlated with better memory performance. The authors conclude that learning across multiple days aids memory by creating distinguishable neural activity patterns, and that this arises via interactions between the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex.

Ezzyat et al. (2018) Differentiation of human medial prefrontal cortex activity underlies long-term resistance to forgetting in memory. Journal of Neuroscience 38(48): 10244-10254

Listening to music affects reading comprehension

Many people listen to music while studying or working, making it important to understand the effects on cognitive tasks like reading comprehension. In this study, participants read texts with and without lyric-based music playing, while researchers tracked participants’ eye movements to measure their reading patterns. After the text was read, a comprehension test was given.

The researchers found that listening to music was associated with more re-reading of the text, presumably to compensate for poor first-pass comprehension. Despite this extra effort, performance in the comprehension test was slightly lower for the music condition. The negative effects of music were most prominent at transitions between songs, and when encountering the least common words. The study provides further details about how music distracts learners from cognitive tasks, specifically reading comprehension.

Zhang et al. (2018) How listening to music affects reading: evidence from eye tracking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 44(11): 1778-1791

What is educational neuroscience?

Educational neuroscience aims to use our understanding of brain function to inform classroom practices, but an accurate description of the discipline has been elusive. In fact, a major criticism has been that the field is little more than the cognitive psychology of learning rebadged.

In this study, Feiler and Stabio analyse the literature to define three ‘pillars’ of educational neuroscience: Application, meaning the use of neuroscientific findings to guide learning and teaching methods; Interdisciplinary Collaboration amongst practitioners of neuroscience, psychology and education; and the Translation of discipline-specific language for the benefit of policymakers, educators, and researchers in other disciplines. To aid translation, the authors recommend open forums that serve to connect researchers, teachers and policy makers.

Feiler and Stabio (2018) Three pillars of educational neuroscience from three decades of literature. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 13: 17-25.

Prioritising memory sequences with reward

We remember rewarding events better than events not linked to any reward. From an evolutionary perspective, it also makes sense for events leading up to the reward to be easily recalled, in order to easily recreate the experience. For example, this would help an animal foraging for food to retrace its steps next time.

In this study, researchers looked at whether memories could be retroactively prioritised for consolidation based on their proximity (in time) to a rewarding event. They observed graded recall of events leading up to an unexpected reward, with events nearer the reward remembered better than more distal events. Reward-based memory strengthening was only seen after participants had an opportunity to sleep, suggesting reward may retroactively modulate memory strength during sleep-based memory replay.

Braun et al. (2018) Retroactive and graded prioritization of memory by reward. Nature Communications

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