Learning and the Brain Conference 2015

posted by Bill Driscoll,  Educational Therapist Specializing in Math

I recently attended the annual Learning and the Brain Conference in San Francisco. This year’s conference was titled: “Making Lasting Memories: Using Brain Science to Boost Memory, Thinking and Learning.” Many of the presentations offered practical advice for improving memory and provided detailed accounts of the research underlying their suggestions. In this two-part summary of my experience at the conference, I will first share valuable, often counter-intuitive tips to help students improve the consolidation of their memories and deepen their understandings. I will conclude with a description of the neurological deficits that are predictive of future math failure and a discussion of the research efforts to train students so that some of the neurological deficits related to math can be corrected.

Most students employ inefficient strategies when preparing for exams; they re-read and highlight material and review their notes. These strategies may help in short term learning and may give the illusion of mastery but they often work against long term retention. Researchers have found that including “Desirable Difficulties” in teaching and also in studying produces more durable learning.

One example of “Desirable Difficulties” is the use of very frequent testing. Research shows that the testing of memory not only assesses what we remember but it strengthens the retention and improves later performance significantly more than additional re-reading and study. Neurologically, the act of trying to recover a memory actually causes bumps to develop and grow on dendrites so that with repeated attempts of memory retrieval, the memories become physically wired within the brain. One researcher applied his findings to his own college classes by presenting his students with very low stakes tests each day. In addition to significantly improving test scores on major exams, he was pleased to notice increased class attendance and participation, students completing more reading prior to class, lower test anxiety, and better meta-cognitive awareness among his frequently tested students. Another application of frequent testing is the use of pre-tests on yet-to-be-presented material. Although many, including students, may be skeptical about the value of such pre-testing, studies have shown that pre-testing leads to increased student retention as long as their early, uninformed errors are corrected quickly. It seems as if the brain’s struggle to deal with novel material prepares it to understand and digest new concepts.   Whether or not a student’s instructors employ frequent testing, students can improve their retention on their own by periodically testing themselves. For example, they can remind themselves to recall a chapter’s main ideas and how the ideas are related. They can create flashcards for various subjects. They can orally quiz themselves and deliver their answers aloud. And they can act out the teaching of a topic giving themselves free rein to gesture since the simple act of gesturing reinforces memory.

Another “Desirable Difficulty” that boosts memory is the Spacing Effect. Research has found that for longer term memory it is better to avoid the “cramming” practice of repeatedly covering the same material. Rather it is better to space the studying over several sessions so a little forgetting occurs and mental effort is required to recall and re-familiarize oneself with the material. Studies show that the longer the delay between study sessions, the better the long term memory.

A third “Desirable Difficulty” is called Mixed Practice. Many math and science textbooks provide blocks of very similar homework problems at the end of each section. Such blocked practice quickly brings students up to speed but doesn’t adequately connect to earlier topics and doesn’t lead to consolidation into long term memory. Mixing up the types of problems provides re-testing of earlier material, challenges the brain to distinguish between different types of problems, deepens conceptual understanding and leads to improved long term memory of each type of problem.

The effectiveness of these “Desirable Difficulties” is persuasive evidence that long term memory is best achieved when the brain is really challenged and engaged.

Additional suggestions for improving memory and learning include: organize information into chunks, write down your understanding in your own words (writing is better than typing), connect new learning to what you already know, form mental images, create a narrative, and get aerobic exercise to generate more neuron growth. The importance of adequate sleep to students’ memory and learning was mentioned by several speakers. During sleep, neurons shrink so that the brain’s fluid can flush out the metabolites generated during the previous day. Without sufficient sleep, these metabolites interfere with brain activity; if one’s sleep is one hour below normal for just one week, one’s IQ drops by an average of 15 points.

As an Educational Therapist specializing in math, the most fascinating presentation I attended was “Math and Memory Training: Understanding the Brain Basis of Problem Solving” by Miriam Rosenberg-Lee of Stanford University. Dr. Rosenberg-Lee mentioned that a student’s working memory capacity is highly predictive of the student’s math performance and that working memory is most impaired within students who experience the most difficulty in math. Furthermore, there is a brain region called the Intra Parietal Sulcus that is under-activated during working memory tasks among students with poor working memory and is also under-activated during arithmetic tasks among poor math students. The importance of this brain region (the IPS) to both working memory and arithmetic raised the research question: “Can training that improves working memory also lead to improvements in math performance?” Dr. Rosenberg-Lee successfully trained 7 and 8 year old students toward improvements on working memory tasks and found that the students exhibited greater activation of the IPS brain region. Unfortunately, the anticipated improvement in arithmetic did not occur. Somewhat surprised by this result, Dr. Rosenberg-Lee speculated, “It could be that the there are different neurons in the IPS for math than for working memory. Or could it be that the increased capacity for working memory somehow isn’t being engaged? Or perhaps increasing working memory capacity doesn’t modulate low IPS activity in low math students.”   Dr. Rosenberg-Lee and her colleagues at Stanford are planning new studies to investigate the interactions of working memory, math performance and the IPS.

Although improvements in working memory don’t seem to automatically lead to improvements in arithmetic, Dr.Rosenberg-Lee remains optimistic about helping students who perform very poorly in math. She spoke of the progress she and her colleagues have made in identifying young students likely to be dyscalculic. Two neurological factors have been shown to predict future math difficulties: less than normal activity in the Intra Parietal Sulcus during either math tasks or working memory tasks, and a smaller Hippocampus, the seat of long term memory. Other studies have found that young children who are much slower than their peers at recognizing the number of dots on a screen are very likely to have serious and lasting difficulties in math. (These students also have little activity within the IPS.) Dr. Rosenberg-Lee and her colleagues wondered whether poorly performing math students could be helped by an intensive, multi-faceted tutoring program. For eight weeks her 9-year old subjects were given daily tutoring sessions which included instruction in strategies for computation, multi-sensory representations of numbers, games in which a student would try to exceed his previous quickest time in computing, math puzzles, and flashcards. The results of this study were encouraging. Participants improved significantly in both their computational accuracy and their reaction times. The children’s improvements in performance were accompanied by improvements in the corresponding brain regions and their networks. The IPS (comparisons of number size and computation) and the Hippocampus (long term memory for math facts) each showed increased activity comparable to normal students. The increased activation of the hippocampus seems to be important because it allows more information to be stored in long term memory so that much more of the child’s working memory is available for reasoning the way through a math problem. In addition to the increased activity within these brain regions, the training also resulted in an increased, and more normalized connectivity between these two regions even when the children weren’t doing math; when the participants were placed in fMRI machines their connectivity closely resembled the connectivity of normal math students. Although this is only an early study, it strongly suggests that intervening at an early age may both significantly improve math performance and may correct some of the neurological deficits predictive of continued failure in math.

The Learning and the Brain company offers many conferences and workshops around the country which address a wide variety of topics in which discoveries in neuroscience can inform educational practices. If you are interested in learning more about their offerings, their website is: www.learningandthebrain.com. Finally, if you are interested in attending next February’s annual conference in San Francisco, savings of about $160 are available to those who are members ($35/year) of Parents Education Network (www.parentseducationnetwork.org).