Brain scans reveal the hidden form of thought and predict student learning better than test scores

Traditional exams and grades that educators have long used may measure learning less accurately than brain scans, according to a new study published in Science Improvements . The paper, written by a team of researchers from seven universities and led by neuroscientists from Georgetown, could not only revolutionize the way educators design curricula, but also reveal a hidden connection in the human mind.

“For a long time, psychologists and philosophers have debated whether spatial thinking. is actually hiding beneath a thought that appears to be verbal,” says Adam Inexperienced, lead author of the study and provost associate professor emeritus at the Georgetown Faculty of Arts and Sciences in the Department of Psychology. “If this is true, then teaching students to improve their spatial thinking skills should strengthen their verbal reasoning ability.”

Researchers studied a science lesson “enriched with the Spatial System” offered in public high schools in Virginia that emphasizes spatial thinking skills, such as building maps and planning how cities can be reconfigured to reduce energy use. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans showed changes in students’ brains as they learned the course syllabus, and these changes were compared to traditional methods of measuring learning ( for example, changes in test scores).

Brain changes were much better predictors of learning, especially a learning style called “distant transference” , which is so deep that it helps students succeed at tasks they haven’t even been taught how to do. Distant transference is somewhat of a holy grail for educators and notoriously difficult to capture with traditional assessments.

Making patterns in the mind

The team’s findings support mental model theory, or MMT, which posits that when humans understand spoken or written language, the mind “spatializes” that information, relying on brain systems that originally evolved to help our primate ancestors navigate complex environments with agility.

When researchers tested verbal reasoning , on words in sentences rather than objects on maps, they found marked improvements in students who took the course emphasizing spatial thinking. In addition, the better the students were at spatial thinking, the more their verbal reasoning improved.

“These results demonstrate that mental modeling could be an important foundation for a distant transfer into real-world education, taking skills from the classroom and applying them more generally,” says lead author and PhD in psychology. student Robert Cortes (C’, G’23). “This study not only sheds light on our understanding of how education alters our brains, but it also reveals key insights into the mother nature of the mind.”

“Verbal reasoning is one of the most powerful tools human evolution has produced,” Cortes says. “It is incredibly exciting to combine neuroscience and education to better understand how the human brain learns to reason. I hope we can leverage these findings to further improve human reasoning.”

Presenting new evidence of MMT in the brain, the research team found that improvements in verbal reasoning could be better predicted by changes in spatial processing centers in students’ brains, particularly in the posterior parietal cortex.

Create a curriculum for the skull

While the debate over mental models has a long history, one of the most burning debates in the modern educational landscape is to whether neuroscience can improve teaching and learning in schools. Although promising in theory, initiatives to integrate neuroscience into education have proven difficult in the real world. One of the main road blocks is that neuroscience tools, like MRI scans, are expensive and time-consuming, making their widespread application in educational policy and practice unlikely.

“We can’t scan every child’s brain, and it would be a very bad idea to do so even if it were possible,” says Environmentally friendly, who is also a faculty member of the interdisciplinary neuroscience program .

Critics have long worried whether the data provided by neuroscience can really tell educators all that they couldn’t find out with the help of tests. traditional paper and pencil or computer.

New discoveries of the research team point to a new way to integrate neuroscience into education that helps overcome these challenges. Instead of focusing on each student’s brain, the study focused on the curriculum that the students learned. The results show that brain imaging can detect the changes that accompany learning a specific program in real-life classrooms, and that these brain changes can be used to compare different programs.

“Curriculum development can and does occur at such small scales that neuroscience can realistically scale,” says Eco-friendly. “So if we can leverage neuroimaging tools to help identify teaching methods that convey the most transferable learning, then these programs can be widely adopted by teachers and school systems. Programs can evolve, but neuroimaging doesn’t have to.”

Students in the spatially enriched program showed more robust brain changes compared to students closely matched who have completed other advanced science programs. These changes seem to indicate deep learning of spatial abilities that the brain can apply in very 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 offered by neuroscience can give educators insight into the far-field transfer learning that have been looking for a long time, but traditional learning assessments often miss.

According to Cortes, “this study is a great example of our department’s mission to connect” neurons to neighborhoods “by science. We hope to use this data to convince policy makers to increase access to this style of spatially enriched education.”

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