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Cognitive Science & Neuroscience

The study of memory resides within a larger, somewhat newer field, Cognitive Science. According to MIT, “cognitive science is the scientific study of the human mind…a highly interdisciplinary field, combining ideas and methods from psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neuroscience. The broad goal of cognitive science is to characterize the nature of human knowledge—its forms and content—and how that knowledge is used, processed, and acquired.” Neuroscience also lives within Cognitive Science; it is the study of cells and molecules, and the circuitry that connects these components to operate a mind. Much of this new activity has taken shape during the past 20 years, so these studies are very much a part of 21st century learning. From Carnegie-Mellon, “In investigating these problems, we utilize a variety of behavioral methods, neuropsychological analyses, functional neuroimaging (including EEG, MEG, and both functional and structural MRI), developmental populations, and computational modeling and simulation.”

We’re at the start of a revolution. As we continue to study the brain and the mind, we will know more about how and why learning takes place. We can expect this new knowledge to emerge with increasing acceleration. Many students will become knowledgable about how their brain, mind and body learn. The question is how schools, teachers and the education industry will make use of these insights. So far, there isn’t much evidence of integration of science and learning at the university level, but the Science of Learning Research Centre, funded by the Australian Research Council and headquartered at the University of Queensland, is a notable exception.

One useful example of their work is captured in the PEN (Psychology-Education-Neuroscience) Principles. The combined use of behavior science and brain imaging adds credibility to the argument that “…human beings can really only pay attention to one person speaking at a time, but what the SLRC research has found is that reading and listening to speech actually use the same region of the brain. When you are reading, to the brain this is essentially the same as speaking the words in your head. This makes it virtually impossible for the brain to properly hear and understand two things at once.” Taking the concept further, “presenting text-heavy material, such as powerpoint, chalkboard/whiteboard/blackboard and hand-out material, when used in combination with spoken words, is detrimental to learning outcomes.”

If you’ve wondered about multi-tasking, SLRC research confirms it’s an ineffective learning strategy: “Although many people believe they can effectively do two things at once neuroscientists have shown that multitasking activates inhibitory networks within the brain suggesting the brain is actually switching between tasks rather than doing both tasks simultaneously. When individuals try to do two things at the same time, they probably don’t realize that instead they actually jump back and forth between the two activities. Neuroscientists now know this rapid switching between tasks has been shown to activate secondary, less reliable memory networks within the brain. It is these reasons that people show impaired performance and memory when attempting to multitask. In the classroom setting, students who have attempted to multitask have not only shown impaired performance and learning, but also reduced attention span.”

Our knowledge of learning is evolving. “Neuroscientists have found that if learning is stretched over several short sessions, areas of the frontal control and deeper memory networks of the brain demonstrate enhanced activity. Spacing out practice has been demonstrated to assist all students ranging from young pre-schoolers learning how to read through to university medical students learning how to perform difficult surgeries. As a result, researchers are recommending that teachers schedule regular review sessions during a school term to revisit the previously learned material rather than rely on one large session just prior to exams or the end of term.”

Errors are part of learning, and should not be discouraged. “Research has shown that while most people shy away from their errors, in most situations learning from these mistakes will actually improve future performance. SLRC researchers have found that error-based learning results in enhanced long-term outcomes for students, just as it does in the general population. Practicing the things you find difficult, the things you make mistakes at—as opposed to the things you find easy—is the only way to gain ‘meta awareness’ of personal skillsets and advance performance from novice to an expert. The concept of productive failure highlights that the more a student struggles, or even fails, the more likely they will be to recall, transfer and apply that information to future learning.” In fact, according to their neuroscience research and brain images, “during learning, high-performers often demonstrate enhanced activity in attention & memory networks only following errors,” but “low-performers often demonstrate enhanced activity in ‘reward’ networks following positive feedback.”

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