Two research papers offer pedagogy and classroom advice

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

Fast-paced lessons or rapid-fire questions might not be the best way to encourage students to build knowledge and understanding, neuroscientists have found.

Meanwhile, pupils who return to difficult tasks and persevere do significantly better regardless of their perceived intelligence, separate research has concluded.

The findings were among those presented at the London Festival of Learning at the UCL Institute of Education in London last week.

The first piece of research comes from the Centre for Education Neuroscience’s UnLocke Project and saw 90 secondary pupils carry out a series of 48 maths and science tests based on challenging misconceptions.

Neuroscientists found that the students who took longer to respond tended to answer more accurately. This ability to stop and think is known as “inhibitory control” – a key part of learning.

The research suggests that pupils who take longer to answer are more likely to be able to grasp and correct misconceptions. As such, the research concludes that encouraging pupils to take time to answer challenging questions could help them to build knowledge and understanding.

The UnLocke Project, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, is investigating the effectiveness of teaching inhibitory control strategies for maths and science.

Professor Michael Thomas, director of the Centre for Education Neuroscience, said: “When you look at what children do, you can’t see whether they are suppressing irrelevant knowledge – but when they fail to do that, they make mistakes. With the type of exercise that the UnLocke Project is using, we can train children to stop and think, and to pause before responding.”

The second piece of research comes from Sweden and builds on the body of research showing the positive impact of a “growth mindset”.

First proposed by Professor Carol Dweck, the growth mindset theory centres on the belief that effort will lead to improvement as opposed to a feeling that one’s abilities or intelligence are fixed.

This research, undertaken by academics at Linköping and Lund Universities in Sweden, used a digital history game to assess how perseverance affected pupils’ performance.

In the game, students had to prove their historical knowledge and ability to learn in order to assist an elf in his quest. Tasks became increasingly difficult and each time a student failed, they were given five choices: try again, try a less difficult mission, try another on the same level, try a more difficult mission, or take a break.

They found that students who returned to their task and renewed their efforts after failing did significantly better and went much further. These students “did not appear to be cleverer” or to be trying harder than those who gave up, but they solved significantly more problems at higher levels – even if they initially stopped and took a break after failing.

The study involved 108 10 to 12-year-olds and, crucially, found that less persistent children were just as likely as their more persistent peers to feel they had put a lot of effort into the game.


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