Donders Wonders

How can we apply neuroscience findings in the classroom?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Evidence-based teaching pushes towards using only educational methodology backed by scientific research. However, for experiments done in the lab, are we sure their results can be applied in schools?

Multiple scientific fields could be use to improve education – illustration by Roselyne Chauvin

In the field of education, instructors are always looking for better teaching methods. More recently, they have looked towards neuroscience to see what the brain can tell us about learning processes in order to improve learning in the classroom. However, the context of the lab and that of the classroom are drastically different. In the lab, we scientists try to recreate the conditions that are important for learning, but learning is a very complex task. We usually explore the influence of one isolated factor at a time, but these factors aren’t usually isolated in everyday life.

For example, we know from lab studies that knowledge fades over time when it’s not used, we even know what the exact “formula” is for forgetting. App are available like ANKI to take advantage of this forgetting curve in the study process. We also know that emotions can affect memory. They can enhance our memory and learning, but at the same time our emotions can distract us as well. Many factors such as emotion or attention play a strong role in this “formula” for forgetting. In other words, our ability to memorize doesn’t only depend on how well we first learn the knowledge or how well we study it, but memory also depends on our the emotional and attentional state we’re in.

Neuroscience can help improve education methodology by investigating neural mechanisms that are helpful for learning. To empower teachers to use these new findings, let’s imagine a website where information about this kind of research is popularized so that teachers can learn more about it. Imagine that the website would offer a forum on “courses”, where teachers and researchers could discuss newly discovered learning mechanisms and how to implement them in the classroom. Researchers could see their babies (discoveries) in action, and in turn, find inspiration for the new experiments!

So new teaching methodology could result from a teacher-and-scientist collaboration. The new methodology would then need to be evaluated to measure if it indeed helps the learning process.  Particularly, an innovative methodology needs to be tested against a traditional method. More importantly, how can we measure if an educational methodology is better than a previous one?

Researchers in cognitive science have tools like tasks or questionnaires that can measure changes in different aspects of the learning process (attention, memory, etc.). So we could get some of these tools, which are also easy to use in the classroom, out of the lab and available online for these kinds of collaborations. We could also imagine a “do-the-experiment-yourself” section on the site, so that teachers can test their own innovative methodology. It would need to be an easy-to-use, quick-to-setup tool with simple instructions from the researchers on how to run the experiment.

Would all that be enough?

I believe that this kind of platform that brings the expertise of teachers and researchers together to reinvent tomorrow’s education would be a step forward for the field of education. Such a platform would help promote evidence-based teaching and would promote validated methodology within the teaching community.

Please, give us your thoughts, in the comments section below, about what else would be needed on this kind of platform?


Author : Roselyne Chauvin

Editing : Lara TodorovaMarpessa Rietbergen

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4 thoughts on “How can we apply neuroscience findings in the classroom?

  1. I think this is a great idea! But, there’s a big BUT: teachers are not scientists. So the forum should keep in mind two things.
    1) in my view the nuances of science are often lost when translating findings to non-scientists. For instance, a study shows that children learn better when items have an emotional context. This is often interpreted as ‘all learning should be emotional’. For this forum to be a success, it should be made absolutely clear that the research findings are not ‘the truth’ and therefore should be tested in classrooms. I understand that this is the aim of the forum, but I think that this should be made very clear. Otherwise, you end up with a lot of neuromyths in classrooms.
    2) conducting a well-controlled experiment is difficult, especially if you don’t want to disadvantage half the classroom. But if the experiments are too simple, how much will they tell you? I think that the danger is that the experiments become too simple. Or alternatively, are too complex. On the other hand, you could also start with the experiences that teachers have already. Perhaps they have tried out several things already, and know from experience what works and what doesn’t. So I would ask the teachers first, before designing experiments for them.

    Just another thought: why not involve the children in these experiments? I think this is an excellent opportunity for children to learn about science and about conducting experiments in a proper way. They can come up with the research questions based on the evidence from labs, think of ways to test it, and conduct the experiments on themselves or on other children, and then interpret the findings. What you teach the teachers is equally interesting for the children / students.

    1. Hi Jeanette and thank you for your comment of great value.
      Indeed, it’s a much more complex question.
      They should not get untested methodologies in the hand or unprocessed information about the brain, but it’s already everywhere, how to control for it? So, educating on why and how is needed and on the website, I would see that a label, attributed by scientists, would say if the methodology was tested or under-testing. We can imagine that some stats on replicability could also indicate how good and reliable a tested methodology is and that teachers can get access to the full information about an “under-testing” methodology if they sign up for participating to the testing.
      For information about the brain, so it will be transformed and create neuromyth and lead to pseudo neuro-based teaching methodology. In a way, a forum could help controlling for that and, indeed, a great emphasis on “the need to test scientifically” is necessary
      When it comes to create their own methodology, they have often no idea about how to estimate if the methodology is a benefit or not to their teaching activity. Indeed, they have experience and know what is working but it’s not unbiased. In general, more testing on this side could also help them promote to higher level of education system methodology that will do a difference.
      So I totally agree with your highlights and will integrate them to the project.
      About the last point: Yes, such a good idea, which would totally fit for a collaboration with the radboud wetenschapsknooppunt. We will be with the Donders Teaching Kit at their January Winterschool, this is a great project to propose to teachers. Thank you for the idea!

  2. I just finished reading your interesting and thought-provoking post on the potential use of neuroscience findings in education, as well as the comments. That said, I had a question about this: how could you transmit relevant neuroscience-related findings to teachers, in such a way as to be easy to understand and apply (even for those who do not have a science background), while minimizing the risk of creating neuromyths?

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