Category: Educational

Taking Tiny Breaks Is Key To Learning New Skills

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Brain activity associated with learning of left-handed key-presses during rest periods, via Bönstrup et al 2019

By Matthew Warren

A wealth of research has shown that taking breaks is an important part of learning. Resting straight after acquiring new information seems to improve memory of that information, for example, and sleep is particularly important for consolidating what we have just learned. 

Now it seems that even miniscule breaks, just seconds long, are also vital for learning new skills. A study published recently in Current Biology has found that most of the improvement while learning a motor task comes not while actually practicing, but instead during the breaks between practice sessions.

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Kids Are More Motivated To “Do Science” Than “Be A Scientist” – A Finding That Could Help Address The Profession’s Diversity Problem

GettyImages-639407632.jpgBy Matthew Warren

It’s well known that science has a diversity problem, with women and members of minority groups being underrepresented. A new study suggests a solution aimed at children – reframing science as something that people do, rather than something that defines their identity, can reduce the potentially off-putting impact of the “white male” scientist stereotype.

According to the paper, published recently in Developmental Science, thoughtful use of language encourages greater interest in science among young children – and makes them less likely to lose confidence in their scientific abilities as they grow up.

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What Do Today’s Students Get Right And Wrong In How They Take Lecture Notes?

GettyImages-172195992.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Do students take notes in an optimal fashion, in line with what psychology research identifies as best practice? It’s an important question given that modern surveys suggest that most students’ preferred approach to exam preparation is to memorise their notes. To find out, a team led by Kayla Morehead at Kent State University has quizzed hundreds of university students about their note-taking methods and preferences, and they’ve reported their findings in the journal Memory.

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People Who Are Most Fearful Of Genetically Modified Foods Think They Know The Most About Them, But Actually Know The Least

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via Fernbach et al, 2019

By Jesse Singal

There are few subjects where a larger gap exists between public opinion and expert opinion than people’s views on foods, like corn or wheat, that have been genetically manipulated to, for example, increase crop yields or bolster pest-resistance. Experts generally view so-called GM foods as totally safe to consume, while the public is suspicious of them — and this divide is massive. One Pew Research Center survey found that just 37 per cent of the American public believed GM foods are safe to eat, compared with 88 per cent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (public attitudes are similarly negative in the UK, with a 2014 poll finding that 40 per cent of adults felt the government should not promote GM foods, compared with 22 per cent in favour, and the rest unsure).

Unlike some subjects where this divide between layperson and expert opinion is heavily mediated by politics, such as climate change caused by human activity — in the U.S. and elsewhere, conservatives are far less likely to believe in it than are liberals and climate scientists — the GM-food divide doesn’t really have a political dimension: Liberals, centrists, and conservatives are all about equally likely to have what are, from the point of view of experts, unfounded fears about the safety of GM foods.

To better understand the source of these fears, a team led by Philip M. Fernbach, a professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, surveyed nationally representative samples in America, Germany and France, and other online participants, about their views on both GM foods and climate change, tested their knowledge on these subjects by asking them to answer factual questions, and also asked them to gauge their perceived level of knowledge on those subjects.

The headline finding from the study, published as a letter in Nature Human Behaviour, is neatly summed up by its title: “Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most.” That is, on average, the more vehemently a given respondent said they were opposed to GM foods, the fewer questions about the subject they answered accurately, and the higher they rated their own knowledge.

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Immediately Re-Watching Lecture Videos Doesn’t Benefit Learning

GettyImages-485409944.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Given a passage of text to study, many students repeatedly re-read it in the hope the information will eventually stick. Psychology research has shown the futility of this approach. Re-reading is a poor strategy, it’s too passive and it leads the mind to wander. Much better to test yourself on what you read, or explain it to yourself or someone else. Now a paper in Experimental Psychology suggests the same is true of lecture videos – immediately re-watching them doesn’t lead to any greater learning.

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Time For A Fresh Approach To Learning Difficulties? The Cognitive Profile Of Kids Struggling At School Bore No Relation To Their Official Diagnoses

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The study used “machine learning” to organise children into clusters based on their cognitive profiles. (Figure 4 reproduced from Astle et al, 2018. See their open-access paper for description.)

By Emma Young

Around 30 per cent of British children fail to meet expected targets in reading or maths at age 11. These children face a future of continuing difficulties in education, as well as poorer mental health and employment success. Understanding why some kids struggle – and providing them with tailored support as early as possible – is clearly vital. Some will be diagnosed with a specific disorder, such as Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder or dyslexia, and get targeted help. But many will not. And even many conventional diagnostic labels may be misleading, and fail to capture the true picture of a child’s problems, according to new work by a team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge, which has come up with a radical, alternative approach. 

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“An additional reason to abandon learning styles” – teachers and pupils do not agree on the pupils’ preferred learning style

34372257313_7291897a62_b-2.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

“Learning styles” – there can be few ideas that have created such a stark disconnect between the experts on the ground and the evidence published in scholarly journals. Endorsed by the overwhelming majority of teachers, yet dismissed by most psychologists and educational neuroscientists as a “neuromyth”, the basis of learning styles is that people learn better when taught via their preferred learning modality, usually (but not always) described as either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic.

Many studies have already uncovered serious problems with the learning styles concept, such as that measures of learning styles are invalid and that students do not in fact learn better via their preferred modality. Now further evidence against learning styles comes from Greece, in one of the first investigations on the topic to involve primary school pupils.

Writing in Frontiers in Education, Marietta Papadatou-Pastou and her colleagues report that teachers and pupils did not agree on the pupils’ preferred learning modality – a significant blow for the learning styles concept since “teachers typically adopt learning styles within a classroom context by relying on their own assessment of students’ learning styles.”

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Self-explanation is a powerful learning technique, according to meta-analysis of 64 studies involving 6000 participants

By Christian Jarrett

It is better to ask a student to see if they can explain something to themselves, than for a teacher or book to always explain it to them. That’s according to a new meta-analysis of the findings from 64 prior studies involving nearly 6000 participants that compared learning outcomes from prompted self-explanation compared to instructor explanation, or compared to time spent using other study techniques such as taking notes, summarising, thinking out loud (without the reflection and elaboration involved in self-explanation), or solving more problems.

The authors of the meta-analysis, published recently in Educational Psychology Review, say that self-explanation is a powerful learning strategy because learners “generate inferences about causal connections and conceptual relationships that enhance understanding”. The process of self-explanation also helps the learner realise what they don’t know, “to fill in missing information, monitor understanding, and modify fusions of new information with prior knowledge when discrepancies or deficiencies are detected”.

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The act of drawing something has a “massive” benefit for memory compared with writing it down

By Emma Young

A picture is worth a thousand words…. When it comes to conveying a concept, this sentiment can certainly be true. But it may also be the case for memory. At least that’s the message from Myra Fernandes and colleagues at the University of Waterloo, Canada – writing in Current Directions in Psychological Science, they argue that their research programme shows that drawing has a “surprisingly powerful influence” on memory, and as a mnemonic technique, it could be particularly useful for older adults – and even people with dementia.

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People are “consistently inconsistent” in how they reason about controversial scientific topics

GettyImages-475407733.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

There are various issues on which there is a scientific consensus but great public controversy, such as anthropogenic climate change and the safety of vaccines. One previously popular explanation for this mismatch was that an information deficit among the public is to blame. Give people all the facts and then, according to this perspective, the public will catch up with the scientists. Yet time and again, that simply hasn’t happened.

A new paper in Thinking and Reasoning explores the roots of this problem further. Emilio Lobato and Corinne Zimmerman asked 244 American university students and staff whether they agreed with the scientific consensus on climate change, vaccines, genetically modified (GMO) foods and evolution; to give their reasons; and to say what would convince them to change their position.

Past research has already done a good job of identifying the individual characteristics – such as having an analytical thinking style and being non-religious – that tend to correlate with accepting the scientific consensus, but this is the first time that researchers have systematically studied people’s open-ended reasoning about controversial scientific topics. The results show that for many people, there are certain issues for which the truth is less about facts and more about faith and identity.

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