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Combining Research in Neuroscience, Psychology, and Education

A new Research Center has been established at Queensland University in Australia. It combines the efforts of researchers in Cognitive Neuroscience, Psychology, and Education. The goal is to improve the education of both non-indigenous and indigenous (aboriginal) students.

In brief summary, three types of research are being integrated:

  • Cognitive neuroscience. At a biological, chemical, electrical level, how does a brain function? What can we do to make it function better?
  • Psychology. Brain performance testing, emotion, attention, rates of learning and forgetting, and other topics relevant to education.
  • Education (teaching and learning). Designing and implementing research on proposed ways to improve teaching and learning. Incorporating long-term implementation and follow-up.

In a 30-minute radio broadcast, Lynne Malcolm interviews several faculty members working in the newly formed Queensland University Research Center (Malcolm, 8/28/2016). The interview begins with a discussion of research and practice in medicine versus in education. Over the past 10 to 15 years, Australia has made significant progress in improving the health of its citizens, but has made little progress in improving their education.

Progress in Australia has been particularly slow in improving the education of the indigenous population. The question is raised: What are we doing in health/medicine that we are not doing in education? The answer given is that medicine does very careful research on the effectiveness of proposed new interventions, tracks use of these interventions over a long period of time, and is often able to achieve their widespread use. For the most part, education fails to do so.

Four examples from the interview caught my attention:

1.  Feedback. Feedback is, of course, essential to learning. With increasing use of computers to provide feedback, the feedback content and schedule can be adjusted—for example, perhaps “tuned” differently for different students. Should immediate feedback be provided on every student response? The research suggests that providing immediate feedback only half of the time is as effective as feedback after every trial and also seems to improve long-term retention. (If this pans out, it will provide an interesting example of “less is more.”)

We tend to think that immediate feedback is “the right” way to go. Delayed feedback, however, allows time for the learner to think about his or her response. Extensive research indicates that, in a variety of situations, such delayed feedback may be better than immediate feedback. Of course, what is best for one student, e.g., the length of the delay and the nature of the feedback, may be different from what is best for another student. The point is that we now have the technology to conduct research that can lead to widespread implementation of individualized feedback and feedback schedules.

2.  Attention. Paying attention is a key aspect of learning. My long-time professional colleague Michael Posner (2016) is a world-class researcher in attention. This is certainly a topic that has been well studied. Students are easily distracted—for example, a student may be thinking about an upcoming recess or lunch break, or messages waiting on the Smartphone, or…. Students can be taught to recognize when their mind is wandering off task, and how to get it back on task.

Metacognition (thinking about one’s thinking) is another type of attention activity. I remember talking with one of my colleagues who did research on teaching metacognition to children even of preschool age. As a part of the radio interview cited at the beginning of this article, one of the researchers talked about the research-based evidence supporting the value of teaching metacognition in school, and providing time and encouragement for students to regularly practice metacognition.

3.  Emotional and social engagement. For many students, interactions with other students are one of the high points of a school day. Moreover, we know that humans are social creatures who routinely learn through their social interactions with others. Consider the simple issue of small group discussions and students working together to solve problems and accomplish tasks. What are optimal group sizes? (The researcher who was interviewed suggested 3 to 4 students). How does a teacher facilitate short-term and long-term group interactions in, for example, project-based learning? What can a teacher do to facilitate the intrinsic motivation of social interaction to aid in student learning? These are difficult, challenging research and implementation questions.

4. Transcranial magnetic stimulation. Quoting from the Wikipedia (8/29/2016):

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a magnetic method used to stimulate small regions of the brain. During a TMS procedure, a magnetic field generator, or "coil", is placed near the head of the person receiving the treatment. The coil produces small electric currents in the region of the brain just under the coil via electromagnetic induction. The coil is connected to a pulse generator, or stimulator, that delivers electric current to the coil.

TMS is beginning to be widely used in certain medical treatments, such as treating the tremor of patients who have Parkinson’s disease (Brainsway, 2016). TMS is in its infancy in terms of use in education, but seems to have considerable potential. Thus, it provides an excellent example of an area in which further research needs to occur. Such research may eventually lead to the widespread use of TMS in education, or may indicate that this would not be a good idea.

Final Remarks

In my opinion, we have barely scratched the surface of effective use of computer technology as an aid to improving education. The same statement holds for other areas of research, e.g., cognitive neuroscience. And, of course, genetic engineering on humans will gradually become commonplace, leading to changes in human physical and mental capabilities.

Researchers and practitioners have developed  a “Science/Scholarship” of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) (Moursund, 2015b). For example, constructivism is one of the many different theories of learning. Quoting Richard Mayer from the Moursund reference given above:

Rather than seeing learning as the rote acquisition of knowledge, researchers have come to see learning as a process of sensemaking. Learners do not simply absorb, passively receive, or record objective knowledge that is “out there.” They actively construct and interpret knowledge by integrating new information and experiences into what they already know.

However, SoTL is not yet very well developed. It has made little progress in incorporating the steadily growing achievements in artificial intelligence and robotics. It will be interesting to see the future developing roles of Information and Communication Technology as a routine and major component of the teaching and learning processes.

What You Can Do

If you are in any way involved in our formal educational systems, pay attention to changes that are being proposed. Changes should be based on our best current knowledge of the science of teaching and learning. They should be based on solid research that provides good evidence that the changes will, indeed, be highly likely to significantly improve the education of our children. Perhaps you will want to practice saying, “Show me the evidence.”

References and Resources

Brainsway (2016). Parkinson’s disease. Retrieved 8/29/2016 from

Malcolm, L. (8/28/2016). The neuroscience of learning. All in the Mind. (Radio, 29:21.) Retrieved 8/29/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2016). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/29/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2015a). Brain science for educators and parents. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/29/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2015b). Scholarship/science of teaching and learning. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/29/2016 from

Posner, M. (2016). Research Gate. Retrieved 8/29/2016 from (This site provides online aaccess to hundreds of Posner’s research papers.)

Wikipedia (n.d.). Transcranial magnetic stimulation. Retrieved 8/29/2016 from

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Guest - Christel Broady on Monday, 05 September 2016 12:36

Hi David:

I am looking for research studies, reports, or even resources on the topic of neuroscience and educational technology use. If you have anything that you can share I would be most grateful. Christel

Hi David: I am looking for research studies, reports, or even resources on the topic of neuroscience and educational technology use. If you have anything that you can share I would be most grateful. Christel
Guest - David Moursund on Tuesday, 06 September 2016 01:11
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