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How the brain builds on prior knowledge

Date:
May 12, 2014
Source:
Radboud University Nijmegen
Summary:
It is easier to learn something new if you can link it to something you already know. A specific part of the brain appears to be involved in this process: the medial prefrontal cortex. These findings further enhance our understanding of the brain mechanisms that underlie effective learning. A researcher added a tip for secondary school students taking their final exams: "If you don't immediately know the answer to a question, you could first try recalling what you already know about that topic. This might help you to come up with the right answer after all."

Correspondence between the activity of the medial prefrontal cortex and study results in the second year versus the first year. Horizontal axis shows the degree of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex of various students; vertical axis shows performance improvement in the second academic year compared with the first.
Credit: Image courtesy of Radboud University Nijmegen

It is easier to learn something new if you can link it to something you already know. A specific part of the brain appears to be involved in this process: the medial prefrontal cortex. The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience has published these findings, from research by neuroscientists at Radboud university medical center and Radboud University, as an Early Access paper. The findings further enhance our understanding of the brain mechanisms that underlie effective learning.

Neuroscientist Marlieke van Kesteren tested two groups of students who had just started on their second-year of biology or pedagogy studies. While an MRI scanner was registering their brain activity, the students learned short sentences containing new information that expanded on their own or the other study program. The following day, the students were tested on the information they had learned. As expected, they had retained the information that was related to their own program better than the unrelated information.

In practice

During the successful retention of related information, a different part of the brain was active than when unrelated information was memorized. 'The brain area we found, the medial prefrontal cortex, probably linked new information directly to prior knowledge', Van Kesteren said. 'In previous studies this brain area came to the fore as well, but only during simple tests. We have specifically shown that this area also plays a role in the neural basis of learning in educational practice.'

Link to study results

To her amazement, Van Kesteren also discovered that the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex corresponded with how well students performed in their second year, compared with the first. So is it possible to predict a student's future academic success by placing him or her in a scanner? 'No, certainly not, the links we found were not strong enough', Van Kesteren explained. 'We're mostly talking here about differences of not more than 10%. What's more, we can't tell from a simple correlation like this what the chief reason is, and whether a whole lot of other factors are playing a role. But if we know exactly how our brain uses prior knowledge, we could try to address that knowledge more selectively before we start learning new information. For example, you could consider how the new information is related to what you already know.'

Van Kesteren added a tip for secondary school students taking their final exams: 'If you don't immediately know the answer to a question, you could first try recalling what you already know about that topic. This might help you to come up with the right answer after all.'


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Radboud University Nijmegen. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Marlieke T. R. van Kesteren, Mark Rijpkema, Dirk J. Ruiter, Richard G. M. Morris, Guillιn Fernαndez. Building on Prior Knowledge: Schema-dependent Encoding Processes Relate to Academic Performance. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2014; DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_00630

Cite This Page:

Radboud University Nijmegen. "How the brain builds on prior knowledge." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 May 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140512101527.htm>.
Radboud University Nijmegen. (2014, May 12). How the brain builds on prior knowledge. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140512101527.htm
Radboud University Nijmegen. "How the brain builds on prior knowledge." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140512101527.htm (accessed October 21, 2014).

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