New Study Shows How Active Learning Improves Cognitive Function

November 12th, 2013 No Comments Other

Active learning

Scientists have long known that keeping the brain active can improve cognitive function and help to prevent cognitive declines later on in life, and adults are often advised that pastimes like crossword puzzles or active socializing will help them stay sharp.

However, a new study led by University of Texas at Dallas professor Denise Park has found that only certain types of activities, such as learning a new skill like digital photography, are likely to improve cognitive functioning.

The research, which was carried out over a 14-week period and involved 259 adult participants, was designed to assess the cognitive benefits of productive engagement versus passive engagement.

Productive engagement happens when a person undertakes an activity that requires active learning and sustained activation of working and long-term memory, such as when you engage in a cognitively challenging task, or, in other words, step out of your comfort zone and try something new.

Receptive engagement, on the other hand, refers to activities that rely mainly on passive observation and activation of existing knowledge, and familiar activities.

“One of the key differences with our study from other interventions was that we didn’t ask people to participate in a specialized brain training program aimed solely at improving their mental abilities,” commented the study’s lead author and co-director of the Center for Vital Longevity Denise Park.

“Rather, this was a major lifestyle change for our participants – they each committed to do activities we prescribed for 15 hours a week for three months – the activities were all fun, everyday things, but they varied in how mentally challenging they were.”

Some participants were asked to learn a new skill, in this case digital photography, quilting or both. Others were asked to undertake more familiar activities, such as listening to classical music or completing word puzzles at home.

In order to determine the possible influence of social interaction on cognitive function, some participants were also instructed to attend a regular social club where they went on field trips, played simple games of chance, watched movies, and interacted with their peers.

At the end of the 14-week period, the researchers found that the adults who had been productively engaged in learning photography, quilting or both, showed marked improvements in memory compared to those who had engaged in relatively unchallenging activities at home or in a social group.

The study highlights the importance of engaging in new and mentally challenging activities to keep your mind sharp, as opposed to simply refreshing existing knowledge or staying socially active.

“It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something—it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially,” said Park in a press release.

“When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”

The authors intend to follow up with the study’s participants in one and five years from now, in order to determine whether the benefits will last over time.


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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