Good News For Control Freaks!

So screams the first line of a recent article on Science Daily. What’s the good news? A study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, shows that “having some authority over how one takes in new information significantly enhances one’s ability to remember it.”

The study compared active and passive learning in a novel way: participants were presented with an array of objects to be memorized, masked by a gray screen. A “viewing window” allowed the study participants to see one object at a time. To test active learning, the participants were able to control the window using a computer mouse. Passive learners viewed a recorded version of the viewing made by an earlier active learner.

The study found significant differences in brain activity in the active and passive learners. Those who had active control over the viewing window were significantly better than their peers at identifying the original objects and their locations.

Cool enough, but to get to a neurological explanation for the phenomenon, the researchers repeated the study with individuals with amnesia (the impaired ability to learn new things) as a result of damage to the hippocampus (the portion of the brain responsible for many memory-related functions). For these participants, there was no difference in recall between active and passive learning.

Additionally, brain imaging of healthy participants indicated that:

Hippocampal activity was highest in the active subjects’ brains during these tests. Several other brain structures were also more engaged when the subject controlled the viewing window, and activity in these brain regions was more synchronized with that of the hippocampus than in the passive trials.

We’re not so sure what to make of the neurological findings in the study, but the clear differences between active and passive learning have lots of relevance for education. It explains why television makes a lousy teaching tool, and why actively engaging students in reading (for example, stopping to ask them questions about what they’ve just read or what they expect to happen next) is helpful for students.

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