Monday, October 3, 2022

Brain scans reveal hidden patterns of thinking and test scores better predict student learning

Georgetown students studying in a biology laboratory.

Image: Georgetown students gather around a computer during a biology lab.
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credit: Georgetown University

Traditional tests and grades long used by teachers may measure learning less accurately than brain scans, according to a new study published in the journal Science. science advance, The paper, authored by a team of researchers from seven universities, led by Georgetown neuroscientists, could reveal not only how teachers design curriculum, but also reveal a hidden link in the human mind.

“For a long time, psychologists and philosophers have debated whether spatial thinking, like mental images of objects, is actually hidden beneath thinking that seems verbal,” said study senior author Adam Greene and Georgetown College of Medicine The Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor in the Arts explains. science in psychology department, “If this is true, then teaching students to improve their spatial thinking skills should boost their verbal reasoning abilities.”

Researchers studied a “spatially enriched” science curriculum offered at public high schools in Virginia that emphasizes spatial thinking skills, such as making maps and how cities can be reconfigured to reduce energy consumption. could. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans showed changes in the students’ brains as they learned the course curriculum, and these changes were compared to conventional learning methods (for example, changes in test scores).

Brain changes were far better predictors of learning, especially a type of learning called “distance transfer”, which is so profound that it helps students succeed in tasks they were taught to accomplish. did not went. Distant transfer is like a holy grail for teachers and extremely difficult to capture with traditional tests.

model in mind

The team’s findings support the Mantle Model Theory, or MMT, which holds that when humans understand spoken or written language, the brain “spatializes” this information, depending on systems in the brain. which originally evolved to help our ancestors navigate complex environments.

When the researchers tested verbal reasoning about words in sentences rather than objects on a map, they found significant improvements in students who took courses emphasizing spatial thinking. In addition, the better the students got at spatial thinking, the more their verbal reasoning improved.

“These findings suggest that mental modeling may be an important basis for shifting away in real-world learning, taking skills from the classroom and applying them more generally,” said lead author and psychology Ph.D. it is said. student Robert Cortes (c’18, g’23). “This study not only enhances our understanding of how education changes our brains, but it also reveals important insights into the nature of the mind.”

“Verbal reasoning is one of the most powerful tools produced by human evolution,” argues Cortes. “It is incredibly exciting to combine neuroscience and education to better understand how the human brain learns to reason. Hopefully we can take advantage of these findings to improve human reasoning more broadly.” ”

Showing new evidence for MMT in the brain, the research team found that improvements in verbal reasoning can be predicted by changes in the centers of spatial processing in students’ brains – specifically in the posterior parietal cortex.

curriculum for the cranium

While debates about mental models have a long history, one of the hottest debates in the modern educational landscape is whether neuroscience can improve teaching and learning in schools. Although promising in principle, efforts to integrate neuroscience with education have proved challenging in the real world. One of the major constraints is that neuroscience tools such as MRI scans are expensive and time-consuming, making it unlikely that they can be implemented in the bulk of education policy and practice.

“We can’t scan every child’s brain, and it would be a really bad idea to do so, even if it were possible,” says Green, who is also a faculty member. Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience,

Critics have long expressed concern about whether the data that neuroscience provides can actually tell teachers anything they could not using traditional paper and pencil or computer-based tests.

The research team’s new findings point to a new way of integrating neuroscience with education that helps address these challenges. Instead of focusing on each student’s brain, the study focused on the curriculum the students learned. The results suggest that brain imaging can detect changes that come with learning a specific curriculum in real-world classrooms, and these brain changes can be used to compare different courses.

“Curriculum development can and does happen on a smaller scale than neuroscience can realistically accommodate,” says Green. “Therefore, if we can leverage neuroimaging tools to help identify methods of teaching that provide the most transferable learning, those curricula could be widely adopted by teachers and school systems. Curriculum could be larger.” Can, but neuroimaging is not needed.”

Students in the spatially rich curriculum showed stronger brain changes than students taking other advanced science courses. These changes indicate a deep learning of spatial abilities that the brain can apply in highly flexible ways, which cannot be fully captured by traditional tests of specific skills. In particular, the study’s finding that brain changes can predict learning better than conventional tests provides strong evidence that the inside view afforded by neuroscience helps teachers learn about distance-shifting learning. can provide insight into what they have long sought but traditional learning assessments often miss.

According to Cortés, “This study is a great example of our department’s mission to connect ‘neurons to the neighborhood’ through science. We will use this data to help policy makers increase access to such spatially rich education.” Hoping to celebrate.”


Additional study authors include Emily G. Peterson, American University includes; David JM Kramer, Dartmouth College; Robert A. Colward, James Madison University; David H. Uttal, Northwestern University; Ni Dinh, Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University, Adam B. Weinberger, Georgetown University and the University of Pennsylvania; Richard J. Ducker, Georgetown University; Ian M. Leon, Georgetown University; and Daniel Goldman, Georgetown University.

The authors report that there is no personal financial interest related to the study.

The described research is partially supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) grants DRL-1420481, EHR-1661065 and EHR-1920682. It was also supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship.

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