Q+A: $16m boost to unpack the science of learning

The centre will develop new teaching methods based on lab research and tested in two experimental classrooms. AAP/Dan Peled

A research centre where experts will use the latest findings from neuroscience, education and psychology to better understand how students learn will open this year, after the Australian government announced today it was allocating $16 million to the project.

The Science of Learning Research Centre, to be led by the University of Queensland, the University of Melbourne and the Australian Council for Educational Research, will comprise 27 researchers in a range of fields.

In this Q+A, the Centre’s director, Professor Ottmar Lipp from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology explains what the centre will do and why it’s needed.

What will the centre do?

Our aim is to provide an evidence base for education.

It will bring together researchers from very different backgrounds – neuroscience, education, and psychology – in order to combine efforts.

The core of the centre will be two experimental classrooms located at the University of Melbourne and the University of Queensland. The way we think of them is as a conduit to link practical applications in the school classroom with the latest laboratory research. The idea is to conduct experiments on ways to structure learning, see what works and transfer that to the classroom.

We will be working together with teachers to ask them about what works in their classroom, and analyse this as well as upscaling interventions from the laboratory setting.

What age students will you be working with?

The centre is initially aimed at school age students but learning is something that occurs in a number of different settings. So the Centre includes researchers who are interested in early childhood learning, in the tertiary sector or across life stages, including in old age.

How will you know what works and what doesn’t?

We need to develop new means to assess learning. Currently, learning outcomes are assessed with behavioural tests; you are asked questions and if you get them right, you are determined to have learned something.

But what you can easily fall into is the old trap of mistaking lack of performance for lack of learning.

What we hope to achieve is to come up with better methods to assess learning. We hope neuroscience will provide us with the toolkit to do that.

Our centre will be equipped with state of the art brain imaging equipment and we will be able to assess changes in brain function as people learn.

We will look at ways of applying knowledge derived from neuroscience, psychology and education about learning in a more constructive and useful way.

For example, it has been shown that repeated testing is more effective in facilitating learning than repeated practise. Repeated testing requires repeated retrieval from memory which can enhance learning. It also gives you feedback about your performance level, which can enhance motivation to do additional work you otherwise would not do.

How do you plan to apply new findings to real classrooms?

It’s a very challenging endeavour.

We will have to work closely together with teachers to develop ways to do that. In a lab setting, it’s easy for me to say repeated testing will facilitate learning but to implement that in a normal school setting is very difficult. More so, if part if the idea is to schedule testing in an individual way so students do not do tests at the same time but when they feel ready and it may be a challenge to implement that in practice.

However, this is where we can utilise technology, for example using computer aided testing.

Will you compare international teaching methods?

We will take a broad approach to generate hypotheses about what facilitates learning and looking at different education systems will be one of the key ways of doing that. Some of our colleagues have vast experience in the education system in Korea, for instance, which is very different to the one we have here. We can learn from their successes or see why, for instance, performance of students in China has improved in tests of mathematics and literacy.