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October 2015

Welcome to the third quarterly SLRC Bulletin for 2015, we hope you enjoy it.

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But we're not teaching neurons!

By Leanne Brandis, School of Education, The University of Queensland

This plea was heard at a recent Big Day Out during a wide-ranging conversation between neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and educational practitioners. It reflected the frustration that is a necessary part of these conversations as researchers attempt to reconcile the range of different perspectives that the SLRC researchers bring to the science of learning.

These conversations are worth having, but they can be difficult, and they bring challenges with them: lovely challenges, as described by one of our CIs, but challenges all the same.

To explore this process, we are investigating how researchers are experiencing learning as they work in the Centre. The data for this project are observations made at centre meetings, and interviews of most of the Chief Investigators about their experience of interdisciplinary collaboration in the Science of Learning Research Centre.

Things that seem to promote learning include the existence of the centre; the selection of researchers who are experts in their own field, open to new ideas, and respectful of other researchers and their knowledge; and the inclusion of researchers who are, because of their experience, personal qualities or attitudes, able to act as brokers between the disciplines.

But, as to be expected when you bring together researchers from disparate disciplines, it is not always smooth sailing. The differences between disciplines (culture, methodology, tools, language, epistemology) are large. Care and effort is needed to account for these. Logistical issues such as time, geography, institutional barriers, and technology are also hurdles.

However, these barriers can be overcome by researchers who can see a shared problem and engage mutually to tackle it. These two factors emerge as a crucial part of interdisciplinary collaboration. Researchers who perceive the shared problem, and work together to address it, will turn exclamations that ‘we’re not teaching neurons’ into resources to further their, and our, understanding of the science of learning.​

Call for papers now open

We invite you and your team to make a submission!

ACER is calling on all educators interested in sharing their practices with the broader educational community to submit abstracts for posters, presentations or workshops for inclusion in the program for our annual Excellence in Professional Practice Conference (EPPC).

The theme for this year’s conference is 'Collaboration for School Improvement'.

Collaboration can be:

  • between teachers;
  • between schools, local and overseas;
  • with other education providers and agencies;
  • with business and community.

Presenting at EPPC is a fantastic way to share experiences, gain visibility, build your network and be a part of a growing and strong professional community.

For more information, visit

Examining how confusion can assist learning in digital environments

By Dr Jason Lodge, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne

Confusion can be beneficial as part of the learning process. For example, being confused cues students to change their learning strategies to overcome impasses as they learn about new concepts or correct misconceptions. A multidisciplinary team of researchers within the SLRC are working together on examining the role of confusion in learning in digital environments. It is important that we understand subjective states such as confusion in order to design more effective learning tasks in digital environments and provide feedback and help for students when they need it.

Our ‘confusion team’ includes Professor Gregor Kennedy, Associate Professor Rob Hester, Dr Rachel Buckley and myself from The University of Melbourne, Professor Lori Lockyer, Dr Amael Aguel and Dr Mariya Pachman from Macquarie University, Professor Ottmar Lipp from Curtin University and Dr Mike Timms from ACER. We are attempting to better understand what causes confusion in learning and how we can design learning environments to support students to achieve productive outcomes from episodes of confusion. Our research spans neuroscience, psychological science and education with studies being conducted in research laboratories and in real life digital learning environments.

The results of our studies so far suggest a complex relationship between confidence, understanding and prior knowledge that influences confusion and the strategies students use in simulations and other digital learning environments. As the capacity for automatic detection of student learning processes becomes more sophisticated, we will be better able to predict in advance when students become confused and reach an impasse. This will allow for personalised scaffolding and feedback to be delivered within the environment in real time to help students overcome impasses and achieve productive learning outcomes.

Bringing the Science of Learning into the Classroom Workshops - Brisbane and Melbourne

By Tennille Seary, Queensland Department of Education and Training, SLRC Teacher Intern

It is the vision of the Centre to support educators through the promotion and implementation of scientifically-validated learning strategies & tools both novel and existing. Translation of research outcomes into the classroom is being achieved by the Centre thanks to the incorporation of new knowledge into professional development programs such the regular SLRC seminar series and the 2-Day Teacher Professional Development Workshops, which were held in Brisbane & Melbourne this year. 

Classroom and pre-service teachers, curriculum writers and school administrative staff alike actively participated in the Centre-designed program which explored how science of learning research findings can be applied to a range of contemporary educational issues including;
• the link between emotions and learning - the impact on motivation, engagement and well-being
• attention and self-regulation
• feedback and reinforcement 
• stages of learning
• learning in a digital age.        

Feedback from participants in both states was exceptional with a number highlighting the most useful element of the workshop experience was the networking opportunities to discuss how the ‘up to date’ research presented could be applied to practice.

The recently held follow up workshop in Brisbane, saw a third of the July workshops attendants return to continue their knowledge advancement into the science of learning.  This event also created an opportunity for returning participants to provide the Centre with insight into how the information obtained at the 2-day sessions had influenced their practice.  The individual and collaborative projects now being undertaken by this enthusiastic group of educators is inspiring and the Translation Team and the Centre are keen to continue to develop upon this year’s workshops in 2016.

Special mention to Annita Nugent, Stephanie MacMahon, Jared Horvath, Greg Donoghue, Jason Lodge, Cameron Brooks and Stuart Kohlhagen for their development and involvement in these events.

Philosophical Underpinnings of Research and Practice

By Kelsey Palghat, Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland

In the Science of Learning Research Centre, we approach the issues of education from a range of research disciplines, each with their own methods and scopes. In trying to cross disciplinary boundaries, fundamental philosophical positions can change how we frame our own research and understand the research of other academics in the Centre. For example, take the position of dualism, which holds that mental and physical states are fundamentally different (Ludwig, 2003). Someone who holds this view will perceive the possible influence of neural research on educational practice as fairly limited. On the other hand, someone who believes that the mind and the brain are identical might approach questions of education by directly studying learning in the brain. These implicit philosophical positions, which are seldom openly debated due to their perceived irrelevance to practice, can drastically change how research questions are answered and what evidence is used to do so.

What happens in the classroom is also constrained by the student and teacher’s underlying philosophical beliefs. A teacher’s views about what is possible can shape expectations of student achievement and may affect the students’ learning (Jussim & Harber, 2005). Similarly, students’ success is shaped by their own understanding of the nature of their capacity to learn (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007).

We must, as both researchers and teachers, be open to communicating about our philosophical beliefs and how they influence our daily work. In doing so, we better understand one another and recognise that reasonable expectations for progress will be shaped by these viewpoints.


Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child development, 78(1), 246-263.

Jussim, L., & Harber, K. D. (2005). Teacher expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies: Knowns and unknowns, resolved and unresolved controversies. Personality and social psychology review, 9(2), 131-155.  Retrieved from

Ludwig, K. (2003). The mind-body problem: An overview. The Blackwell guide to philosophy of mind, 1-46.

Profile: Professor Pankaj Sah

Professor Pankaj Sah is Director of the SLRC and Director of the Queensland Brain Institute at The University of Queensland.
After graduating with an MBBS from The University of New South Wales he spent his intern year at Concorde Hospital in Sydney. 
He had taken a year during his medical degree to complete a Bachelor of Medical Science, a laboratory based program.  As a result he was drawn to research, and following his intern year completed a PhD in Neuroscience at the Australian National University. He has always been interested in neural function and for most of his career Professor Sah’s research has focused on understanding the neural circuits that underpin learning and memory formation.

“My group has been interested in the role of feedback, particularly reinforcement, in learning and memory formation,” Professor Sah explained.  “Interestingly we find that partially reinforced memories are retained better than fully reinforced ones.”

“At a neural level we also observe that animals experiencing partially reinforced learning appear to engage more neurons during the learning process” he said. This work has been done in animal models and is now being tested in human subjects with the longer-term goal of taking it to classroom situations.
Prior to the SLRC, Professor Sah’s collaborators were fellow neuroscientists, far removed from the reality of the classroom.  Since being part of the Centre collaborating with cognitive neuroscientists such as Professor Ottmar Lipp, and Professor Jason Mattingley and education researchers like Professor John Hattie has expanded his thinking about feedback. 

“Everyone knows that feedback can have an extremely positive impact on learning.  However, the impact of feedback on learning is extremely varied, and can even be negative” says Professor Sah.  “Collaborating with teachers and educational researchers we are working towards unravelling the mystery of why feedback isn’t always helpful, and identifying the key attributes of impactful feedback.

When asked how it feels to lead a Centre comprising researchers from such divergent backgrounds Professor Sah replies “Bringing together researchers from disparate disciplines certainly has its challenges, but we are making progress – we had to develop a new vocabulary in order to converse with each other.   But it has been worth the effort as we question each other and challenge some of the dogma of the respective disciplines. At the end of the day the Centre is about identifying, developing and validating tools and strategies to improve learning outcomes.”

A word from the SLRC Teacher in Residence – Ms Tennille Seary

A critical element of the SLRC is its commitment towards the translation of cutting-edge multidisciplinary research for the wider educational and learning communities in modern Australian society.   

The two day professional development workshops, hosted in Brisbane and Melbourne, saw over 120 eager participants gain insight into current research across the fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology and education, translating it into relevant, future-focused, practical information for educators.  The overall feedback from participants was exceptionally positive and a number of attendees will be returning during the Queensland school break to follow up on how the workshops have supported them in their professional practice.  The Centre’s seminar series also continues to run with regular events at both UQ and The University of Melbourne.

As a part of this series the SLRC was privileged to have Dr David Osher, from the American Institutes for Research present recently on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and the Conditions for Learning.  Dr Osher’s work delves into the importance of and relationship between conditions for academic learning and SEL.  With an increasing body of evidence highlighting the effects of SEL on learning, social development, and school quality it is vital that stakeholders in the education industry understand how these effects can be measured and improved.

Developing a plan for continuing SLRC research into this area was one of the many topics of discussion at the second Big Day Out event, held in Melbourne in August.  SLRC Chief Investigators, Researchers and Students from nodes across Australia met at Melbourne University to unpack the Centre’s different disciplines and examine them through multidisciplinary lenses.  These discussions were preceded by a research poster evening, where Centre members were given the opportunity to share various research projects.  Congratulations must go to, Kelsey Palghat (Philosophy of the Mind and the SLRC) and Jared Hovarth and Alex Horton (Does embodied conceptual priming have an impact on learning?) for their illuminating submissions.

A final special mention for the SLRC’s Researchers and Students involved in this year’s QLD Brain Bee competition held at QBI in July.  Approximately 140 Year Ten students from around Queensland participated in the competition, and were afforded the opportunity to access to QBI’s facilities and experience the various resources and technologies used in neuroscience research.

Upcoming Events

"You are not thinking, you are just being logical": creativity, executive functions and NAPLAN results

Presenter: Professor Martin Westwell, Flinders University

Venue: Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland

Date: Tuesday 17 November, 4.30pm-5.30 pm

Click HERE to register 

ACER Research Conference 2016

Improving STEM Learning - What will it take? 7-9 August 2016, Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre – a number of SLRC researchers will be presenting at this conference

Excellence in Professional Practice Conference (EPPC) 2016
Collaboration for school improvement
Thursday 19 May - Friday 20 May, Melbourne

SLRC Seminars

The SLRC Seminar Series, in Melbourne and Brisbane, are continuing in 2015 and 2016. Visit for more details.

Science of Learning 2 day Professional Development Workshop:

These will be run during the June/July end of semester break at locations around the country.  To register your interest or find out more information email

Visit for more details.