Here's What Scientists Aren't Telling Us About Learning

June 20th, 2015 9 Comments Features


It’s rare for educators to be kept in the scientific loop, and rarer still to encounter research that might actually compel us to change our teaching habits. But these ten findings are the real deal– the gamechanging brain science we like to hear and the practical guidelines we can follow to integrate it into our daily routine. Let’s make a point to stay in the know and use what we can.

1. To learn quickly, don’t concentrate so hard.

Why are some people able to master a new skill quickly while others require extra time or practice? That was the question posed by UC Santa Barbara’s Scott Grafton and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University.

To find the answer, the team designed a study that measured the connections between different brain regions while participants learned to play a simple music game. Comparing the activation patterns of 112 anatomical regions of the brain, they found a lot of connectivity during the first few trials, but as the experiment progressed the regions became more independent of one another. For example, the part of the brain that controls finger movement and the part that processes visual stimulus didn’t really interact at all by the end of the experiment.

According to Grafton, in some ways this trend was not surprising since the team was essentially seeing the learning process on the neurological level, with the participants’ brains reorganising the flow of activity as they mastered this new skill.

More surprising was the fact that participants with the most neural activity overall were actually the slowest learners, suggesting they were “overthinking” the task.

“It’s useful to think of your brain as housing a very large toolkit,” explains Grafton, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. “When you start to learn a challenging new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, your brain uses many different tools in a desperate attempt to produce anything remotely close to music. With time and practice, fewer tools are needed and core motor areas are able to support most of the behavior. What our laboratory study shows is that beyond a certain amount of practice, some of these cognitive tools might actually be getting in the way of further learning.”

This trend was most pronounced in the frontal cortex, which is in charge of higher-order thinking skills like decision-making and concentration. Grafton says that while good cortex function is necessary for complex tasks, it “might actually be a hindrance to mastering simple ones.”

Grafton also notes that the frontal cortex is one of the last brain regions to fully develop in humans, which may help explain why children are better at absorbing new skills quickly than adults.

So why is this important? Because it means we should worry less about whether our students are focusing and more about whether they’re “in the flow.”

2. It matters what your learning environment looks like.

For the first time, clear evidence has been found that well-designed learning environments can boost learning progress in reading, writing, and maths.

This is according to the results of the HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design), funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and undertaken by The University of Salford in Manchester. Published in February, the research reveals how differences in the physical characteristics of settings– such as air quality, colour, and light– can together increase the learning progress of primary students by as much as 16% in a single year.

The Salford research team, led by Peter Barrett, Professor of Management in Property and Construction from the University’s School of the Built Environment, spent the last three years collecting pupil data and carrying out detailed surveys of 153 learning settings from 27 very diverse institutions across three districts.

The study considered a wide range of sensory factors and used statistical modelling techniques to isolate the effects of design from the influences of other factors, such as the pupils themselves and their teachers.

The results showed that considerations of daylight, temperature, and air quality have the most influence on children’s progress. The children’s feelings of ownership of their surroundings are also important, as is an environment which is “neither over stimulating nor unduly calming.”

Surprisingly, the researchers found that institution-wide factors– such as navigation routes from room to room and specialist and play facilities– are not significant compared to the design of the student’s “home room,” or primary learning environment.

A very positive finding from the research is that teachers can readily adopt many of the findings of the research to make a real difference to primary students’ learning progress. The report produced by the University contains very simple, quick, and cost-effective advice and tips for teachers. For example, advice contained in the report covers how to consider alternative layouts, how to approach the use of displays on walls, or in what way to change the colour of walls– all to increase learning potential. Suggestions to be taken into account at the design stage of building are also provided.

3. We process words visually, not phonetically.

When we look at a known word, our brain sees it like a picture, not a group of letters needing to be processed. That’s the finding from a Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, which shows the brain learns words quickly by tuning neurons to respond to a complete word, not parts of it.

Neurons respond differently to real words, such as “turf,” than to nonsense words, such as “turt,” showing that a small area of the brain is “holistically tuned” to recognise complete words, says the study’s senior author, Maximilian Riesenhuber.

“We are not recognising words by quickly spelling them out or identifying parts of words, as some researchers have suggested. Instead, neurons in a small brain area remember how the whole word looks– using what could be called a visual dictionary,” he says.

This small area in the brain, called the “visual word form area,” is found in the left side of the visual cortex, opposite from the fusiform face area on the right side, which remembers how faces look. “One area is selective for a whole face, allowing us to quickly recognise people, and the other is selective for a whole word, which helps us read quickly,” Riesenhuber says.

The study asked 25 adult participants to learn a set of 150 nonsense words. Using a specific fMRI technique, the investigators found that the visual word form area changed as the participants learned the nonsense words. Before training, the neurons responded to the nonsense words without whole-word recognition, but this changed after training. “This study is the first of its kind to show how neurons change their tuning with learning words, demonstrating the brain’s plasticity,” says the study’s lead author, Laurie Glezer, PhD.

The findings not only help reveal how the brain processes words, but also provides insights into how to help people with reading disabilities, says Riesenhuber. “For people who cannot learn words by phonetically spelling them out — which is the usual method for teaching reading — learning the whole word as a visual object may be a good strategy.”

4. The healthiest teachers learn the most while at work.

Several studies have indicated a connection between learning and health. In a recently published study from University West and Linnaeus University the researchers found that the health of school teachers is related to their level of work-integrated learning.

A random sample of 229 teachers at 20 schools in Västra Götaland responded to a questionnaire which included previously tested measures of health, quality and work-integrated learning. The resulting data showed a highly significant statistical correlation between the measures.

This indicates that in order to be healthy, teachers need not only teach– they must also learn and develop themselves. An ultimate state of learning is characterised by a sensation of “flow,” which has been described by researchers as a state of complete immersion in an activity in a way that is maximally effective while at the same time highly enjoyable.

According to Yvonne Lagrosen, Associate Professor in Quality Management at University West, a sense of flow implies that the workload is perceived as lower:

“What this research indicates is that to be healthy, we need to constantly learn and develop, in our profession and as people,” she says. “If we enjoy our work to the extent that we are completely absorbed in it, as in the state of flow, we should have the optimal possibilities for a healthy influence from our work. So find a job that you really enjoy and make sure that you learn and develop at it.”

5. Understanding a student’s learning process occupies the same space in the brain as practising empathy.

New research has identified the parts of the brain involved in computing mistakes in other people’s understanding, which is a key process in guiding students’ learning.

In a study published by the Journal of Neuroscience, volunteers were asked to act as a teacher as they observed the responses of another volunteer playing a computer game. The teachers had to indicate whether the students’ decisions during the game were correct or not as they lay in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner.

The researchers, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, used mathematical modelling to see how wrong the students’ beliefs were about their responses.

According to the results, the MRI scans revealed that a region of the teachers’ brain called the anterior cingulate cortex signalled how wrong the beliefs of the student were during the game. This is the same region of the brain associated with empathy.

“For teachers, understanding what your students believe is a vital part of the teaching process, allowing meaningful and useful feedback to be provided,” said lead author Dr Matthew Apps. “Our study has identified some of the key structures and computations in the human brain that are important for teaching.”

Professor Narender Ramnani, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, said, “Our formative years are often shaped by interactions with our teachers, but very little is known about the mechanisms that underpin the teaching process in the human brain. These findings have implications for understanding how the brains of teachers compute errors in their students’ understanding, and how teachers provide feedback that guides student learning.”

6. A teacher’s mental health can impact student performance.

A new study has found that teachers who reported more symptoms of depression than their colleagues created learning environments that were of lesser quality across many areas, and had students with lower performance gains, particularly in math.

“Teaching is one of the most stressful occupations,” notes Leigh McLean, doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, and Carol Connor, professor of psychology, at Arizona State University, who conducted the study. “One of the troubling consequences of occupational stress is that it can contribute to elevated rates of symptoms of depression. Our study reveals some of the negative implications of higher rates of teachers’ symptoms of depression for students.”

For the study, McLean and Connor looked at 27 teachers and their 523 third-grade students in Florida. Teachers reported the frequency of their symptoms of clinical depression, and students’ basic reading and math skills were assessed throughout the year. Using video recordings, trained observers assessed the quality of the learning environments.

The students who were the most vulnerable to the negative effects of their teachers’ depression were those who were already struggling in math, suggesting that the children who needed to improve the most were less likely to be able to do so when they were being taught by more depressed teachers. Students with weaker math achievement made greater gains when they were in higher-quality environments with less depressed teachers.

Research on depression and teaching is sparse, but one study of early education teachers found that almost 25 percent had diagnosed depression, compared with about 18 percent of non-teachers. Although some pioneering studies have looked at the effectiveness of mental health interventions on teachers’ performance– and suggest that such programs have strong potential for positive change– most current models of professional development don’t address mental health.

“Our study is one of the first to reveal that the constellation of symptoms that point to risks for depression hurt not only the teachers who experience these symptoms, but also the development of the teachers’ students– especially students who are struggling academically,” McLean and Connor note. “The study highlights the need for nationwide mental health support systems for educators, not only for teachers’ benefit, but for the benefit of students.”

7. Using labels like ‘dislexia’ can prevent teachers from helping students.

Researchers at Newcastle University have found that teachers who use labels like “dislexia” instead of “learning difficulty” are more likely to believe there are limits to their instructional effectiveness.

Researchers at Newcastle University asked a sample of teachers to complete two questionnaires about children who were struggling with reading. One questionnaire sought to discover how much the teachers believed they could do to help the children. The other questionnaire sought to discover the extent to which the teachers believed that the children’s difficulties were simply inherent.

Two different versions of the questionnaires were used. In the first version both questionnaires talked about ‘dyslexia’ and in the second they talked about ‘reading difficulties’. A total of 146 teachers responded to the ‘dyslexia’ questionnaires and 121 responded to the ‘reading difficulties’ questionnaires.

When the researchers analysed the results, they found that the two different labels were associated with differences in the teachers’ beliefs about their efficacy in helping the children. Using ‘dyslexia’ evoked responses that suggested it was seen as a fixed disability, and that the teachers believed their ability to help children with dyslexia was unlikely to develop over time.

By contrast, the teachers who had been asked about ‘reading difficulties’ were less likely to see the children’s problems as permanent or genetic; they were more likely to believe that they would be able to help them, and that their skills developed with experience.

“These findings challenge the value of labels like ‘dyslexia,’ which may be used as shorthand descriptors for the difficulties some children experience,” the researchers write in their report. “These labels may be of illusory benefit because they reduce teachers’ belief in their ability to help the children. As a result the labels could be ultimately unhelpful to the children’s wellbeing and educational progress.”

8. Saving old information helps us learn new information.

The simple act of saving something, such as a file on a computer, may improve our memory for the information we encounter next, according to new research published in Psychological Science. The research suggests that the act of saving helps to free up cognitive resources that can be used to remember new information.

“Our findings show that people are significantly better at learning and remembering new information when they save previous information,” says psychological scientist and study author Benjamin Storm of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“The idea is pretty simple: Saving acts as a form of offloading. By ensuring that certain information will be digitally accessible, we can re-allocate cognitive resources away from maintaining that information and focus instead on remembering new information.”

While previous research had indicated that saving information on a digital device, such as a computer or camera, hinders later memory for it, the researchers hypothesised that there might be a positive flipside to this saving-induced forgetting.

“We tend to think of forgetting as happening when memory fails, but research suggests that forgetting plays an essential role in supporting the adaptive functioning of memory and cognition,” explains Storm.

As technology develops, computers and smart phones are making it easier and easier to save information, which seems to have important consequences for the ways in which our memory functions. “By treating computers and other digital devices as extensions of memory,” Storm says, “people may be protecting themselves from the costs of forgetting while taking advantage of the benefits.”

The researchers believe that the memory benefits of saving previous information may even have broad implications for how we think more generally:

“Coming up with a new idea or solving a problem often requires that we think outside the box, so to speak, and forgetting previous information allows us to do that. By helping us to reduce the accessibility of old information, saving may facilitate our ability to think of new ideas and solve difficult problems.”

9. Early testing is no indicator of later success.

According to new research by Professor Richard Cowan of the Institute of Education, primary students’ performance on tests is no indication of how they will fare in later life.

Although assessments and tests conducted at school are typically believed to be a way to predict how children will get on later in life, the study found that youngsters’ ability–particularly at primary level– follows no set pattern, with little stability in their progression.

“Children develop and change at different rates, and according to a variety of factors,” Cowan explained in a press release. “It is important to be wary of the pitfalls of labelling a child as either high or low ability based on testing early on in primary school. Presuming individual differences to be stable for the purposes of selection within schooling is dangerous and not a reliable indicator.”

10. Young students learn mathematics differently.

As children learn basic arithmetic, they gradually switch from solving problems by counting on their fingers to pulling facts from memory. The shift comes more easily for some kids than for others, but no one knows why.

Now, new brain-imaging study from the Stanford University School of Medicine is giving the first clues to how the brain reorganises itself as children learn math facts.

The study adds to prior research into the differences between how children’s and adults’ brains solve math problems. Children use certain brain regions, including the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, very differently from adults when the two groups are solving the same types of math problems, the study showed.

The study, which followed groups of children and adults over the course of several years, revealed that as children aged from an average of 8.2 to 9.4 years, they became faster and more accurate at solving math problems, relying more on retrieving math facts from memory and less on counting. As these shifts in strategy took place, the researchers saw several changes in the children’s brains. The hippocampus, a region with many roles in shaping new memories, was activated more in children’s brains after one year. Regions involved in counting, including parts of the prefrontal and parietal cortex, were activated less.

“It was surprising to us that the hippocampal and prefrontal contributions to memory-based problem-solving during childhood don’t look anything like what we would have expected for the adult brain,” said postdoctoral scholar Shaozheng Qin, PhD, who is the paper’s lead author.

Critically, although children were using their hippocampus more after a year, adolescents and adults made minimal use of their hippocampus while solving math problems. Instead, they pulled math facts from well-developed information stores in the neocortex.

“What this means is that the hippocampus is providing a scaffold for learning and consolidating facts into long-term memory in children,” the researchers write. “In adults this scaffold is not needed because memory for math facts has most likely been consolidated into the neocortex.”

For adults, the hippocampus seems to serve only as a backup copy of the math information that adults usually draw from the neocortex.

These findings could benefit students who struggle with math at various ages:

“In children with math-learning disabilities, we know that the ability to retrieve facts fluently is a basic problem, and remains a bottleneck for them in high school and college,” the researchers say. “Is it that the hippocampus can’t provide a reliable scaffold to build good representations of math facts in other parts of the brain during the early stages of learning, and so the child continues to use inefficient strategies to solve math problems?” That’s what they’ll test next.


Saga has taught and tutored writing at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Her educational interests include psychology, creativity, and system reform. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, Oregon, USA.

You can reach her on Google+, @sagamilena or [email protected]

9 Responses

  1. Russ Johnson says:

    The conclusion that teaching reading through the whole word approach has been tried unsuccessfully on two occasions. Once from 1930-1940’s and again in the mid 1980’s. Research from both of those time periods demonstrated that phonetics was a superior method to teaching reading and whole word reading was ineffective. One of the problems with the conclusion is that the study was done on adults. The adult brain is much different than a child’s brain. I recommend reading Daniel Willingham’s book “When You Can Trust The Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad.” He does an excellent job on describing this educational approach and its’ failure. I would hate for our children to go through another period of whole word reading approach to only have it shown to be ineffective for the third time.

  2. Saga Briggs says:

    Thanks for your comment, Russ. I have to point out that the study is not about whole word learning as we’ve known it for nearly a century; it’s about visual learning. That’s what makes it so sigificant. We’re not talking about a holistic method focusing on the meaning and context of a word within a particular passage or text. We’re talking about building fluency through visual recognition. Sure, you learn the way a new word sounds and the way it can be broken down into individual phonemes. But when the phenomenon of reading occurs–when a child can move swiftly from sentence to sentence–that is the brain’s visual center at work: recognizing the shape of a letter, or five letters, or twenty, as a meaningful “whole.”

  3. Melissa says:

    Thank you so much for this tips. Ther are very helphul for me as I’m a student.

  4. Visual recognition of course is a key. However in the learning phase so is the association of the visual with the phonetic relationships. In the case of Chinese for example there are no phonetic relationships or clues embedded so learners need to memorise every character. We learn them visually, there is no other way.

    With English, that is not the best way to learn the spelling of words. In fact the spelling that developed is an effort by our forbears to lighten the load on our memory. The Chinese did not figure that out and hence they are still suffering. In fact the whole Chinese education system suffers as a result.

    Their over dependence on memorisation in their schooling can in fact be traced back to the unique challenges their writing presents to all learners. I digress…

    The study you referred to only looks at a small aspect of learning and is hard to extrapolate and make the conclusions that have been made. Ability to read nonsense words and learn from them already assumes a whole range of awarenesses and skills.

    I have taught many Chinese to learn to read English. ALL of them want to memorise every word. Mein Gott! Once I show then there are far more efficient ways to learn to read and spell, their eyes open to the wonder of the efficiencies of the spelling of English. All of a sudden what seemed like an enormous task for them becomes manageable and readily achievable.

    Of course visuals play a role. But to ignore the other factors is a mistake.

  5. On a positive note, :-), I really liked this article Saga. You bring up some great points that I believe all stakeholders could do well to read.

    I have spent a lot of time researching and writing about the poor state of language teaching. Some of the points you raise are certainly factors that hold back progress in the field.

    All humans have incomparable learning powers, which we need to better understand so that schooling can become a time when these powers can shine. For that to happen, we need articles like this so that people can open their eyes and look for better ways than we are currently employing.

  6. Saga Briggs says:

    Glad you found them useful, Melissa!

  7. Saga Briggs says:

    Andrew, what an interesting point about the Chinese language. Somewhat ironically, I remember reading that the Chinese trump English speakers at mathematics because they don’t have to memorise as much as we do: for example, while English has a unique word for the number “11”, Chinese has a word that can be translated as “ten-one,” making the Chinese quicker at understanding and calculating numerical relationships. I agree that spelling and sounding out words helps makes reading more efficient, but not because it spares us from memorisation. We have to memorise correct spelling and pronunciation even more often and with more effort than remembering a word’s shape. I suppose the question is, on which aspect of language–visual or phonetic–do we most rely in order to construct meaning? When we read the phrase, “Thank you very much,” are we constructing meaning from the the way the words sound or the way they look? Clearly, both–but I think educators have been neglecting the influence of the latter.

    • Well Sara you might be interested to know that in fact Chinese burdens the memory in counting more than in English. In English, we only need to remember 16 bits to count to 1 less than 1 billion. Whereas in Chinese we need to remember 19 bits. So whoever wrote that article needs to look a little deeper.

      Sally, I don’t really understand what you mean by “We have to memorise correct spelling and pronunciation even more often and with more effort than remembering a word’s shape.”
      As in counting, the function of memory is far less than people think. Once we understand what binds cake, make, late, mace, gate, pane together as well as understand that the same understanding holds for words like pope, cone, tote, crone then we can show reduce the burden of memorisation for learners of English. Memorisation is the most onerous of all the ways we learn to remember things. Remember 🙂 that none of us used memorisation to learn our first language.

      Meaning can be separated from reading and spelling. There is a meaning in a word AND then there is “meaning” in a letter. I can in fact can read a language fluently but don’t really know what I am reading. OMG I hear you saying. I agree! 🙂

      I agree with you in that visuals are important, especially for visual learners. Kinesthetic learners on the other hand rely far less on the visuals. Whichever kind of learner you are though, you will benefit enormously from realising that memorisation plays a minor role in learning to become a good speller of English. Recognition, awareness, noticing are just a few of the “powers” that learners need to exercise if they are to become good spellers. Shape is one factor, but so are the phonemic values as well as the patterns we have. In fact in English something like 97% of all words are pattern driven.

      Once learners concentrate more on patterns and less on memorisation, our rates of illiteracy will tumble.

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