Changes in brain can predict learning better than traditional marksheet: Report

According to a new research published in Science Advances, pen and paper based examination and marking system is less accurate to measure merit than the scans of the brain. Neuroscientists have documented a link between spatial and verbal reasoning by scanning students’ brains while taking a course that focused more on spatial learning.

“For a long time, psychologists and philosophers have debated whether spatial thinking, like mental images of objects, is actually hiding underneath thinking that seems verbal,” explains Dr. Adam Green, the study’s senior author. “If this is true, then teaching students to improve their spatial thinking skills should boost their verbal reasoning ability.”

Spatial vs Verbal reasoning

When we create ideas by bringing together symbols into meaningful sequences, then we are doing verbal reasoning. While the same concept can be showcased through geometry, through graphs, then it is spatial reasoning. The common example of verbal reasoning is when we are trying to understand the route after listening to someone speaking in any language, and of spatial reasoning is to find direction with help of map. The difference is that the former deals with describing something in words, while the latter describes the same thing with visuals.

What is the research ?

The researchers studied a “spatially-enriched” science course offered at public high schools in Virginia that emphasizes spatial thinking skills, like building maps and planning how cities can be reconfigured to reduce energy consumption.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans showed changes in students’ brains as they learned the course curriculum, and these changes were compared to the ways that learning is traditionally measured (e.g. changes in test scores).

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The brain changes were far better predictors of learning, especially a kind of learning called “far transfer,” which is so deep that it helps students succeed at tasks they weren’t even taught to accomplish. Far transfer is something of a holy grail for educators and notoriously difficult to capture with traditional tests. The team’s findings support Mental Model Theory, or MMT

What is Mental Model Theory ?

Mental Model Theory proposes that when humans interpret spoken or written language, the mind makes visual model of this information by relying on systems in the brain that originally evolved to help our primate ancestors nimbly navigate complex environments.

What are the research findings ?

When the researchers tested verbal reasoning, about words in sentences rather than objects on maps, they found marked improvements in the students who had taken the course emphasizing spatial thinking. What’s more, the better students got at spatial thinking, the more their verbal reasoning improved.

Students in the spatially-enriched curriculum showed more robust brain changes compared to closely matched students who took other advanced science curricula. These changes appear to indicate a deep learning of spatial abilities that the brain can apply in highly flexible ways, which may not be fully captured by traditional tests of specific skills. In particular, the study’s finding that brain changes can predict learning better than traditional tests provides strong evidence that the inside view afforded by neuroscience can give educators insights about far-transfer learning that they have long sought but that traditional learning assessments often miss.

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

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What are the challenges in expanding neuroscience in education enhancement ?

It is a matter of debate in the current academic setup if neuroscience can enhance teaching and learning in schools. Though encouraging in theory, attempts to integrate neuroscience with education have proved demanding in the real world. One of the major obstacles is that neuroscience tools, like MRI scans, are expensive and time-consuming, making it unlikely that they can be applied on the large scale of education policy and practice.

“We can’t scan every kid’s brain, and it would be a really bad idea to do that even if it was possible,” says Green, a faculty member in the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience.

Critics have long expressed concerns about whether the data that neuroscience provides can really tell educators anything they couldn’t find out using traditional paper and pencil or computer-based tests.

How the research helps in overcoming these challenges ?

The research team’s new findings point to a new way of integrating neuroscience with education that helps to overcome these challenges.

Instead of focusing on each individual student’s brain, the study focused on the curriculum the students learned. The results show that brain imaging can detect the changes that come with learning a specific curriculum in real-world classrooms, and that these brain changes can be used to compare different curricula.

“Curriculum development can and does happen at the kinds of small scales that neuroscience can realistically accommodate,” Green says. “So, if we can leverage neuroimaging tools to help identify the ways of teaching that impart the most transferable learning, then those curricula can be widely adopted by teachers and school systems. The curricula can scale up, but the neuroimaging doesn’t have to.”

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