Neural Alignment and Learning

Neural Alignment and Learning

Usually in this blog, we write about ideas and research applicable to our roles as practitioners of corporate learning. But every so often we come across a research study with results so fascinating, we are compelled to share it, even though it is unlikely to impact how you do your day-to-day job. This is such a study:

We know from many years of cognitive science research that related concepts are grouped into mental schemas. It’s how we make sense of the world. Animals are in one set of schemas and plants are in another. But what does that look like at the neural level? Do we all organize knowledge in the same way? And what does this neural alignment, or lack of alignment, say about how well we understand a subject being taught? A group of researchers at Princeton University set about to answer these questions.

In 2018, these researchers scanned the brains of 24 undergraduates over the course of a semester while the students studied “Introduction to Computer Science.” The researchers found that they could see the growing alignment of neural patterns in the students’ brains as the students watched the six video lectures in the course. They also scanned the brains of a group of “experts” (grad students, instructors) as those experts answered questions on an exam covering the material.

Here’s what they found:

  • Most of the students had similar neural patterns.
  • The level of alignment of any student’s neural patterns with the class as a whole correlated with how well the student performed on the final exam.
  • The level of alignment of any student’s neural patterns with the “experts” correlated with how well students performed on the final exam.
  • It was possible to detect after the first scan how well students were going to perform in the final exam. That is, the neural patterns of students who performed poorly showed misalignment from the beginning.

I doubt any of us are about to attach our learners to fMRI machines during a training program — but if we did, based on this research, we could quickly see who is going to do well and who is going to struggle.

And maybe there is a lesson here for course design. You need to structure your courses in a way that makes it easier for the learners to form common mental schema. Make the organization of key concepts clear and visible from the beginning.

If you are interested in a more detailed description of the study click here.

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