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Study of brain waves could answer how learning occurs

Results could change how Common Core is assessed and how multimedia is presented
A student from Pullman School District 267 in Washington wears electrical sensors on her head for an electroencephalogram (EEG) test that measures and records the electrical activity of her brain.
A student from Pullman School District 267 in Washington wears electrical sensors on her head for an electroencephalogram (EEG) test that measures and records the electrical activity of her brain.

In what appears to be an average classroom, students from Pullman School District 267 in Washington wear devices that measure their pulse, eye movements and brain waves as a teacher gives a lesson.

The classroom is part of the Neurocognitive Science Lab at Washington State University, which opened this year. The lab, funded by the National Science Foundation, is the first in the nation to monitor academic, behavioral, social, emotional and neurological data during class sessions to study how learning takes place.

Results could potentially change how the Common Core is assessed and how multimedia is presented in classrooms.

“At a fundamental level, we don’t understand the link between teaching and learning,” says Rich Lamb, director of the lab and assistant professor of science education at Washington State University. “We can get an objective measure of how students from an emotional and cognitive perspective engage in learning.”

Most education research relies on self-reported data, Lamb says. If researchers want to know how a student felt about a particular math exercise, the only option is to ask them. Yet studies show that self-report measures are usually inaccurate, as students have difficulty assessing how hard they find certain problems compared to others.

In the lab, researchers connect students to pulse and heart monitors, glasses that track eye movements, and headbands that track breathing to get a more accurate picture of how each student responds to a lesson or problem.

Replicate the classroom

Experiments are being conducted on students from Pullman and other nearby districts this spring. Researchers give students, parents, teachers and administrators who are new to the experiments an hour-long orientation session.

“We let students walk around, touch the equipment, ask questions, and try it on so they’re comfortable with it,” Lamb says. “If we don’t do that, there’s anxiety.”

Once the students are wired up, a teacher will start a lesson. “We want to replicate the classroom environment as much as possible, and take readings while learning is happening,” Lamb says.

In one example, six students from the Pullman district learned about basic coding. “It was really interesting to see how the students physically responded to questioning strategies,” says Bob Maxwell, assistant superintendent at Pullman.

A machine measuring brain activity produced a color-coded graph of brain waves. In turn, the teacher could tell when a question was too hard and the student mentally shut down.

Common Core, multimedia

More than 60 experiments are in process at the lab. One examines cognitive difficulty of math concepts in the Common Core: Researchers gave math problems to elementary students while measuring brain activity to determine how mentally demanding each problem actually was, compared to what the standards identified as the most difficult.

“We’re finding there’s not great alignment between what the Common Core says the cognitive demand is and what we’re seeing across our students, measuring with the neuroscience technology,” Lamb says. “It may lead to discussion around how we are assessing this.”

Another experiment examines multimedia learning and effects on cognition, which may impact how pictures and text are displayed in textbooks and on apps.

Despite the useful data produced by these experiments, it’s unlikely that this type of equipment will become the norm in classrooms anytime soon, Lamb says.

“I think it has great promise—it could really have a positive impact on improving our teaching and learning,” Maxwell says. “I could definitely see using it periodically if we wanted to assess students or question whether a particular activity or teaching strategy was engaging students.”