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November 2014

Welcome to the fourth quarterly SLRC Bulletin for 2014, we hope you enjoy it.

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Making sense of feedback in a digital environment

Researchers in the SLRC are investigating feedback in digital learning environments – how learners process and make sense of it. The study uses behavioural and neural research methods such as observation, computer log data, eye tracking, biometric data and EEG to examine the neural responses to feedback when students are using intelligent learning environments.

Intelligent learning environments developed by researchers at Partner Organisations North Carolina State University and Carnegie Mellon University are being used in this study. Dr Mike Timms from the Australian Council for Educational Research explains: “The intelligent learning environments that we are using in this study track student progress as they work through tasks in science and maths, providing feedback when the system judges that it is needed. What we are interested in is whether students are actually noticing and attending to the feedback that the system provides. Designers of such systems take care to craft helpful and informative feedback, but there are a lot of factors, such as individual differences among learners, that can interfere with the use of that feedback. If the student is not processing the feedback that is offered, then they will not benefit from it. It is that process that we are examining in this study.”

The study has just completed the first phase of the research in which year 7 and 8 students participated in 31 sessions to use Crystal Island – a 3-D game-like environment in which students investigate the causes of diseases, and Maths Tutor, in which they tackled problems involving fractions. The cognitive laboratory sessions took place in the SLRC’s Learning Interactions Classroom at the University of Melbourne, where video data, screen capture and biometric wristband data were collected.

“We can track students’ alertness and stress levels by measuring changes in their heart rate and skin sweating, which are controlled by the brain. The biometric wristbands are a non-invasive way of measuring alertness and stress levels in students whilst they are engaged in learning activities,” Associate Professor Ross Cunnington from The University of Queensland said. Data from the wristbands and the other sources are being analysed and preparations will then be made for the second phase of the study that will take place in the Educational Neuroscience Classroom facility at the University of Queensland next year.

Dr Timms added, “At the end of the study we hope to have developed and tested a model of how students attend to, process and act upon feedback offered to them in intelligent learning environments. Understanding this sequence in more detail will allow us to develop guidelines for the design of effective feedback systems in intelligent learning environments.”

The Power of Mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness has been rapidly gaining momentum in recent times. Research has documented the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions in the treatment of anxiety and depression. It has also been shown to improve physical health, psychological well-being and enhance cognitive function. But what is the effect of mindfulness training on attention and emotion regulation, and what are the underlying neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness?

Researchers from the SLRC are combining functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and a battery of self-report and experimental methods to measure the effect of mindfulness training and address the questions:
• Is there any change in brain activity and functional connectivity after mindfulness training?
• Is there any change in the effect of emotion on learning after mindfulness?
•  Does mindfulness improve or change the way people learn?
• Is there a change in selective and sustained attention, working memory, distractibility, impulse control, and cognitive flexibility after mindfulness training?
• What is the effect of mindfulness on psychological well-being?
• What is the effect of mindfulness on emotional regulation?

“The intervention for this study will utilise a mindfulness protocol,” explains Associate Professor Annemaree Carroll from The University of Queensland’s School of Education. “The mindfulness program will include weekly group sessions, regular home practice, and core mindfulness practices such as body scans, sitting movements and walking meditations, as well as informal mindfulness practices.”

“Using fMRI, we can measure changes in brain activity and correlate this to learning outcomes using a categorical learning task and other behavioural measures using self-report tests developed and compiled by Associate Professor Annemaree Carroll and her team,” said Professor David Reutens, Director of the Centre for Advanced Imaging at The University of Queensland.

In line with other studies on mindfulness, we expect to see strong improvements in participants’ self-reported levels of well-being, emotion regulation, and in attentional control after completing the mindfulness program. We are also very curious to find out whether, and in what ways, the influence of emotion on learning changes after completing mindfulness. We expect to see differences in brain activity (as measured by fMRI) between participants completing the mindfulness program and controls when completing a learning task whilst experiencing a strong emotion.

The Mindfulness project will commence in March 2015 with an adult sample. After baseline measures have been undertaken, participants will then undergo 8 to 10 weeks of mindfulness training before being retested on neurological, behavioural and learning protocols. Results will be compared to a control group. Preliminary data are expected mid-2015.

Review by Gregory Donoghue, PhD Candidate, Science of Learning Research Centre, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Neuroscience and Education: myths and messages, Paul A. Howard-Jones in Nature Reviews Neuroscience 15th October 2014

Another article about neuromyths? Really? This was my first reaction, but upon finishing Howard-Jones’ article, I had concluded that, sadly, it needed to be written. It’s been almost 20 years since Bruer questioned the capacity of neurosciences to inform education, and almost 15 years since we learned that educators’ knowledge of neuroscience was disturbingly low, while the prevalence of well-debunked neuromyths were disturbingly high.

Unfortunately, Howard-Jones reports that not much has changed in that time, citing recent research showing, for example, that over 90 per cent of teachers still believe that people learn better when taught in their learning style. His article proposes two essential explanations of why this is so, and then describes his solution. Firstly, he attributes the persistence of neuromyths to a failure of language where educators and neuroscientists refer to different phenomena using the same terms (e.g. ‘attention’ and ‘motivation’). The absence of a common language not only allows myths to develop, but also hampers any attempt to debunk them. Secondly, he refers to the ‘bias towards simplicity’ - the over-simplification of complex scientific phenomena to the point where over-reaching conclusions are drawn and accepted as fact. He cites the misuse of ‘the myth of three’ by Heckman as a prime example, where a speculative model, based on specific assumptions, has been repeatedly over-interpreted as if it were based on empirical fact, and used to support questionable policy decisions.

To address this issue, he recommends that communication between the disciplines needs to be improved, and proposes that this can be achieved in two ways. Firstly, more collaboration is needed between neuroscientists and educators – a point which is possibly self-evident, and one which has been repeated elsewhere – and certainly an aim of SLRC. Secondly, he writes optimistically about the emergence of dedicated interdisciplinary fields – such as Mind Brain & Education, Educational Neuroscience, or Neuroeducation - and describes how these fields may ‘inform educational approaches’ and ‘encourage scientific insight’. I am not so optimistic.

These solutions have already been implemented for almost two decades - and yet teachers still perpetuate neuromyths and display low levels of neuroscience literacy. Does this not indicate the need for a different approach; or will doing more of the same lead to a different result? Further, while it may be lamentable that educators’ knowledge of neuroscience is low, the article does not show why this is important. Given that educators have, over several centuries, been largely successful in enhancing student learning and achievement, despite their ignorance of the brain, where is the evidence that an increase in educators’ neuroscientific literacy will enhance student outcomes? Perhaps neuroscientists need to understand the language of teaching and learning so they make the leap and not ask teachers to leap the other way.

Is it possible that a broader approach is necessary? While learning is well-described as a neurological phenomenon, education is a much broader, sociocultural one – perhaps indicating that the broader inter-discipline of the Science of Learning – which includes but is not limited to neuroscience – is a more likely candidate to bridge these two fields. In this way, perhaps these persistent neuromyths can finally be put to rest, and articles about them will no longer be needed. Howard-Jones probably shares my hope to see that day.

Profile: Dr Michael Timms

Dr Michael Timms is the Theme Leader for Measuring Learning at the SLRC, and Director of Assessment and Psychometric Research at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

As a theme leader of one of the SLRC’s core scientific platforms, Dr Timms stresses the importance of working with researchers in the other themes – understanding learning and promoting learning – to further the field.

“My major hope for the SLRC is that it establishes the foundations of a transdisciplinary field that brings together researchers from education, cognitive psychology and neuroscience so that we can advance our knowledge of learning and put it into practice in schools and other places of learning,” Dr Timms said.

“I am already seeing the seeds of this cross-fertilisation in the work that is underway and I hope that this will deepen as we enter our next two years,” he said.

“I like to think of this new field as educational neuroscience, but I know there are other names that people have proposed.”

Like the rest of neuroscience, the field is taking advantage of new technologies that allow unparalleled tracking of learning activities.

“At the moment, my research team is investigating how students attend to, interpret and act upon feedback that is provided by intelligent learning environments,” Dr Timms said.

“Our aim is to be able to provide some design principles on how to provide feedback so that those constructing such learning environments can make sure they optimise learning outcomes.

The SLRC is also in a position to leverage the combined knowledge of the Centre’s 25 chief investigators, who bring with them unrivalled individual expertise, and push each other to go further.

In Dr Timms’ case, he cites the 2013 Journal of Research in Science Teaching Award which recognised a paper he co-authored as a career highlight.

“The paper represented the culmination of many years of work developing and testing simulation-based assessments for science learning, so it was pleasing to be recognised that we had made a contribution that was noticed by those teaching science,” he said.

“I love the fact that by being part of the SLRC I have to learn things that I didn’t know before about the brain, how it works, and what we still don’t know about its role in learning.

“I have met so many researchers and other people through the SLRC and I am excited to be a part of new, emerging community.”

Events in 2015

ACER Excellence in Professional Practice Conference: Improving assessments of student learning, 21-23 May 2015, Novotel, Brighton Beach, Sydney – this is co-located with the SLRC researcher conference, and a number of SLRC researchers will be presenting research posters.

ACER Research Conference 2015 – Learning assessments: Designing the future, 16-18 August, Crown, Southbank, Melbourne – a number of SLRC researchers will be presenting at this conference.

Mind Brain Education Conference, 26-27 February 2015, Melbourne Convention Centre, South Wharf, Melbourne – a number of SLRC researchers will be presenting at this conference.

SLRC Seminars – the SLRC Seminar Series, in Melbourne and Brisbane, will continue in 2015. A schedule of events will be available early next year.


The SLRC is a Special Research Initiative of the ARC