Some of the neuroscience around learning.
Information or ideas that are often associated with each other become linked together in the same way as actions that take place together become a habit over time. This principle is very famous; you may even have heard of the phrase ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. If neurons or, more likely, groups of neurons represent ideas then when two ideas occur together many times, we come to expect them together.
The response we produce to a stimulus is always dependent on two things; the current brain state and the stimuli we receive from the environment (such as what we see and hear), as the diagram below shows. In turn, this then affects the wiring of our brain in future and the response we make now. Bear in mind, of course, that a lot of this processing, rewiring and response happens entirely outside of our consciousness! You do not necessarily notice connections between neurons being built or broken down.
How is this relevant for education?
In an educational context, we are not so concerned about the current behaviour and response as we are about the future brain wiring; students need to be able to do something in future and it is not expected that they can necessarily do it now. In order to do this we need to work out the student’s current ‘wiring’ in the form of their perceptions, ideas and beliefs, and then attempt to develop this into a desired form. Learning materials are the primary source of stimuli and a student’s behaviour gives us indications about their current ‘wiring’. Good assessment, such as effective tests or questions, can give us a good idea of what a student understands, what misconceptions they might have and what they might be ready to learn.
Not all assessment is ‘good’, though. Some questions are poor indicators of a student’s understanding. Multiple choice questions can sometimes be too easy to guess, or allow students to recognise correct answers even if they cannot recall them or work them out. Leading questions or subconscious teacher cues can give students suggestions as to what the right answer might be without deep understanding of the concept or method. In the early 20th Century a horse in Germany (‘Clever Hans’) became famous for supposedly being able to count; he could not count, but he could pick up on the changing behaviour of the audience when he had tapped out the correct number with his hoof, and stopped tapping. Clever, perhaps, but he still could not count.
How has this affected the design of ‘Get My Grades’?
‘Get My Grades’ has been designed from the outset to provide stimulating and accessible learning materials with lots of links between related topics or to relevant examples, even those in other subjects. This helps students understand the bigger picture and develop a deeper and more secure understanding of important ideas. In addition, students are automatically prompted to learn or practise more basic concepts they do not yet understand if they attempt to cover ideas that are too advanced.
The questions in the ‘Get My Grades’ system are specifically designed to test understanding of one or more concepts and are categorised by difficulty to ensure that students are presented with questions with the appropriate level of challenge. The ‘Get My Grades’ software automatically sets questions on concepts the student has covered and can recommend tasks based on their prior performance. Different question types assess different skills and by providing thorough feedback immediately after each question (rather than several days later when a book has been marked and returned), the system allows rapid correction of misconceptions and effective reinforcement of important ideas. The algorithms that decide which question is presented to which student at which time are derived from the Leitner System, where all questions are asked repeatedly but correctly answered questions are answered less frequently than those a student gets wrong. The end result is a much more intelligent learning and revision system that can direct a student’s revision and provide accurate and detailed data to students, teachers and parents, in real time.
Next week we’ll be looking at attention and how it affects our decision making process. See you then!
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