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Can neuroeducation help reshape the way we see exams?

Steve Masson and Wooclap host a webinar

While neuroscience does not answer all pedagogical questions, it is now proving to be of great help in better understanding brain mechanisms related to learning, and thus in improving teaching methods.

Among the leading researchers on the subject, Steve Masson has published a book entitled Activate your neurons: for better learning and teaching (Odile Jacob, March 2020). He is a professor at Montreal’s Université du Québec, where he heads the neuroeducation research laboratory, and is committed to highlighting the practical benefits of fundamental research. His creed is « to use our understanding of the brain to optimise teaching and learning ».

On May 14th, 2020, Steve Masson hosted a webinar for Wooclap in which he revisited seven key neuroeducational principles and shared practical ways to make learning more effective, notably through exams.

7 key neuroeducational principles for better learning

1. Activating your neurons

When we learn, our brain changes: neural connections are created, due to brain plasticity, and our knowledge is encoded in these neural networks. So, Masson explains, we need to create and strengthen, sometimes undo or weaken, the neural connections related to learning. In any case, we need to adjust them.

2. Activating your neurons repeatedly

Activating neural connections once is not enough to learn. These connections are established and strengthened gradually, so they must be activated repeatedly. From a pedagogical point of view, this means planning different learning activities several times.

3. Performing memory retrieval practices

When we make an effort to remember information, i.e. to retrieve it from memory, we strengthen the neural connections related to this learning. This activates key regions for the efficient encoding of knowledge in our brain, notably the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. It is therefore important to plan memory retrieval practice exercises with learners.

4. Elaborating explanations

Explaining why an assertion is true or how a process unfolds requires us to not only retrieve knowledge from memory, but also make connections between them. In doing so, we create connections between different groups of neurons: we build a system of knowledge. This type of exercise therefore helps us to structure our knowledge and increases our ability to retrieve information from memory, and thereby our ability to learn.

5. Spacing the activities in time

Ideally, if two learning activities are related to the same subject, it is best not to do them one after the other, but to space them out over time. First, this will help maintain brain activity throughout the exercises, which would otherwise tend to decrease. Secondly, this rhythm makes it necessary to sleep between two activities. While we sleep, our brain reactivates the same neurons as during the day. In other words, sleep contributes to the consolidation of learning.

6. Making sure to maximise feedback

When we give an answer to a question, just as when we interact with our environment and look at the effect of our actions, we receive feedback. If this feedback indicates that our action or response was appropriate, we call that positive feedback. Conversely, negative feedback indicates that we made a mistake. In both cases, feedback is essential for adjusting neural connections.

Furthermore, positive feedback activates an area of the brain called the striatum. It causes a release of dopamine in the striatum, which creates a sense of pleasure: when you complete a task, you usually experience satisfaction, which is important for learning because it can increase motivation.

Negative feedback, which occurs when we realise we have made a mistake, is also important because it can trigger corrective mechanisms in the brain, in areas of the anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex. This is one of the most important pedagogical factors for learning, Steve Masson insists, because feedback helps limit the repetition of errors rather than reinforcing them, as would be the case if you were training memory retrieval and the elaboration of explanations without feedback.

7. Cultivating a « growth mindset »

We need to cultivate our confidence in our ability to improve as much as possible: this dynamic mindset tends to result in more attention being paid to the feedback provided. Conversely, a person with a fixed mindset will consider that the efforts required for learning aren’t relevant: they are not worth it.

These seven neuroeducational principles help create a system that allows you to better choose educational activities and better organise them in time. According to Steve Masson, this also leads you to look differently at certain practices. In particular, these principles challenge us to rethink the matter of exams by pondering their advantages and limitations.

Turning exams into an effective learning tool

What are exams for?

While the current context of the coronavirus crisis poses additional challenges to learning, it is all the more relevant to ask how and for what purpose examinations should be organised.

Most often, the first and foremost thought is about obtaining a mark that is used to make decisions: to move on to the next grade, to judge whether or not one has learned certain things,… If we focus only on these aspects, we may have a negative perception of examinations as a mere means of judging and classifying students. Not only do they not allow knowledge to be deeply rooted, but they are also a source of anxiety for students.

One way to reduce stress is to ask whether exams should be eliminated or, on the contrary, multiplied. This may seem surprising, but some studies show that more exams can give students more confidence, to the point where they prefer having an exam every lecture rather than one or two per semester! From this perspective, the exam serves as a tool to evaluate students, but also - and more importantly - as a learning tool that allows for the application of the seven neuroeducational principles.

For Steve Masson, exams are above all an opportunity to once again activate learning neurons, train memory retrieval, develop explanations, and give feedback.

Two precautions to take

Steve Masson highlights the importance of adjusting the level of difficulty of the exams. Indeed, an exam that is too difficult may amplify its negative effects, with a high level of stress and sustained negative feedback that can lead to discouragement and demotivation. Actually, says the researcher, the best way to motivate students is not to trap them with tricky questions, but to make them succeed. The result is a release of dopamine that makes them want to repeat the satisfaction, and thus increases motivation. Conversely, an exam that is too easy is not appropriate either, because you have to make mistakes to learn. Hence the need to balance positive and negative feedback.

Studies, which have yet to be confirmed, tend to show that a success rate of 85% on an exam would be optimal: this would take advantage of the positive effect of dopamine and positive feedback to strengthen the appropriate neuronal connections, while giving students the opportunity to correct themselves.

Furthermore, Steve Masson stresses the importance of clearly formulating an exam’s questions to avoid a state of cognitive overload. If the student already devotes a lot of attention to understanding the nature of the question, it will be more difficult for them to answer it, even if they possess the required knowledge.

He reminds us that the more easily content can be retrieved from memory, the less space it takes up, which limits the risk of cognitive overload. He therefore advocates exams that balance simple and complex questions. This variety promotes learning, both in terms of knowledge acquisition and the ability to link different knowledge and solve problems.

How to mark a test and when to give the correction?

For Steve Masson, exams are an opportunity to give feedback. However, the most effective feedback is not simply delivering the right answer with a grade.

Scientific studies show that the more detailed the feedback is and the more it focuses on the process to find the answer, the more beneficial it is for learning. By making people understand the reasoning that leads to a wrong answer and explaining to them which process would be better, they develop a growth mindset.

Of course, when you have many students, giving everyone elaborate feedback is an almost insurmountable challenge, but you can emphasise certain answers or use tools which provide immediate, if not very detailed, feedback.

This is another important point: the sooner feedback follows the answer, the better it is for learning. This is especially true at the beginning of learning, when the risk of error is high. In the knowledge consolidation phase it is less important, so delayed feedback may suffice.

Test or final exam: which format to adopt?

A final exam, which concludes a major learning stage, is often seen as a tool for evaluation and judgement. Steve Masson, for his part, sees an exam primarily as a time to answer questions, i.e., to retrieve memories, develop explanations, and activate the brain.

From this perspective, exercises, tests and exams are very similar because they share certain characteristics for learning. The main difference is related to the fact that exams are generally longer and have a greater impact on the student’s academic path - which explains why they sometimes cause anxiety. Steve Masson suggests making the final exam something you prepare for along the way: you do exercises, give explanations and feedback, gradually increasing expectations about the student’s ability to do it. The goal is to establish a continuum between examinations and other educational activities.

In conclusion, Steve Masson echoes the most recurring word in the reactions of participants to the webinar: adapt, if possible based on what we know about the brain and cognitive functioning. Knowing these mechanisms, but also understanding where these neuroeducational principles come from, allows teachers to adapt them to their own context.

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