The neurobiological processes that underpin learning are complex and not always directly connected to what we think it means to learn.
Parts of the brain not traditionally associated with learning science become active when people are confronted with solving physics problems, a study has found.
The finding, published in the journal Frontiers in ICT, shows that the brain’s activity can be modified by different forms of instruction.
Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure blood flow in the brain, the researchers looked to map what areas become active when completing a physics reasoning task, both before a course on the concepts and after.
“The neurobiological processes that underpin learning are complex and not always directly connected to what we think it means to learn,” said Eric Brewe, an associate professor at Drexel University in the US.
More than 50 volunteer students took part in the study in which they were taught a physics course that utilised “Modeling Instruction,” a style of teaching which encourages students to be active participants in their learning.
Before they participated in the class, the students answered questions from an abridged version of the Force Concept Inventory while undergoing fMRI.
The Force Concept Inventory is a test that assesses knowledge of physics concepts commonly taught in early college physics classes.
After the volunteer students completed their physics course, they again took the Force Concept Inventory, once more monitored by fMRI.
In the pre-instruction scans, parts of the brain associated with attention, working memory and problem solving – the lateral prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex, sometimes called the brain’s “central executive network” – showed activity.
“One of the keys seemed to be an area of the brain, the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, that generates mental simulations,” Brewe said.
“This suggests that learning physics is an imaginative process, which is not typically how people think of it,” he said.
After the subjects had completed their class, comparison of the pre- and post-learning scans revealed increased activity in the frontal poles, which was to be expected since they have been linked to learning.
There was another area that also became active: the posterior cingulate cortex, which is linked to episodic memory and self-referential thought, researchers said.
“These changes in brain activity may be related to more complex behavioural changes in how students reason through physics questions post-relative to pre-instruction,” said Brewe.
“These might include shifts in strategy or an increased access to physics knowledge and problem-solving resources,” he said.