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just in time for final exams…

December 7, 2010

I often encourage (demand) students to be more “engaged” in their learning. Simply sitting in class is not engaged learning. Asking questions about examples related to the material being covered or commenting on how the examples provided in the textbook fit (or don’t) with the examples used in class is engaged learning. Studying notes – especially ones prepared by someone else – or skimming the textbook is not engaged learning. Taking the material and reorganizing it, asking questions about how the concepts apply in new situations, taking examples and “playing around” with them to see to what extent various concepts or relationships hold – this constitutes active and engaged learning. Students are sometimes resistant to this idea (“I got As in high school, so why should I change how I study now?” or “It is too hard to study that way”). However, being an active participant in the learning endeavor is critical, and the gains far out weigh the costs involved in being engaged.

A new study from my alma mater, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, provides some new evidence of how neural systems underlie learning (you can check out the actual article in Nature Neuroscience or a nice synopsis and slide show prepared by UIUC). It has been known for quite a while that various parts of the brain are active when memory encoding takes place. It has also been known that these various parts of the brain are interconnected and work together to accomplish various tasks (e.g. encoding information into longterm memory). However, what was not clear was what determined that activation. Often times, this system is thought to respond simply to input – for example, the visual system provides information about objects in the environment and then that activation travels through to other areas, including the hippocampus, which allows for the successful encoding of information. However, this account portrays the overall system as being rather passive – provide input and it will be remembered. This recent study shows that there is more going on…

The quick story is that participants in the study benefited (they remembered more) from being able to choose what they looked at and for how long when trying to learn the spatial layout of objects in a display. Participants in the study were asked to learn “what” objects were “where” within a layout on a computer screen. Only one object at a time was visible – the screen was “grey” except for a moveable window – and the participants in the “control” condition (not your typical “control condition” for those research methods students out there) could move this window around with the computer mouse. Other participants were “yoked” to this selection process – they saw exactly the same information as the participant who controlled the window movement, but did not control the window themselves. The study was designed so that all participants learned two arrays of objects – in one case they controlled the window and in the other they observed the selection process used by a prior participant in the study. The participants showed increased memory for the objects as well as their spatial location when they were “in control” compared to when they  were “yoked” to another participant’s window movement. The study also examined whether patients who had damage to the hippocampus (and anterograde amnesia as a result of this damage) showed the same benefit of having control during the study portion of the experiment. They did not – suggesting that the hippocampus plays a role in this process. To further explore the role of the various brain regions, the experiment was modified so that the brain activation associated with both active and passive study could be monitored (using fMRI). The most interesting result from the imaging portion of the study was that participants showed similar patterns of brain activation in the two conditions (basically, the same areas of the brain were active during both conditions), but the activation was more coordinated in the control condition. This coordination of the activation seems to be related to whether control is involved (of course raising some interesting questions about just how it is that we select certain behaviors over others, i.e. the specter of “free will” and consciousness) and also seems to be important to the success of the learning.

So, I guess the take-home is evident – taking “control” of your learning is important. It’ll result in better learning and it will get your brain in sync.

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