ModKathryn: Hello everyone! Welcome to this evenings live chat on Factors Affecting Learning. My name is Kathryn and I am a moderator on the Learning Zone. Researchers and teachers – do say hello when you log on.
ModKathryn: While we wait for others to join, @Jessica and @Anne could you tell us a bit about your research? @Abena would you also like to introduce yourself and tell us what you’re interested in?
Jessica: Sure. My research is all about how children learn to remember what words mean. I use both storybooks and toys to explore how things like repetition, clutter, sleep, etc. influence learning.
Abena: I’m a secondary teacher (mostly international schools) and starting an MSc conversion course in Psychology in September. Fascinated by learning and memory.
Anne: I am examining the effects of physical activity on children’s academic achievement. We also look at changes in their brain to see whether we can explain possible improvements in academic achievement.
Abena: @Jessica – how far into your research are you? Any findings yet?
Jessica: @Abena: yes, several findings but the kids I test are much younger than secondary school. A few of my studies have shown that reading the same stories multiple times really helps in learning words.
Anne: Sounds very interesting Jessica, I’m curious about the results! How old are the children that participate in your studies?
Jessica: Thanks, @Anne. Most of my studies are with kids in the EYFS, mainly 3-4. Especially for kids in that range reading before sleep/bedtime is helpful, repeating stories is helpful, having less in their visual field when they hear new words too.
ModKathryn: Fascinating! @Jessica – is that because children are less distracted with less in the visual field when learning new words?
Victoria: Hi Abena, great to hear about your course! Which aspects of learning and memory are of particular interest to you?
Abena: @Victoria-everything! I’m particularly interested in long-term retention methods, and the use of techniques such as loci and mnemonics.
ModKathryn: Thats interesting @Anne – do you measure changes in brain activity pre and post exercise?
Anne: We have some preliminary findings suggesting that increasing the amount of physical education classes is especially beneficial for students with the lowest academic achievement, but I am still very busy with analysis
Abena: @Anne – you mean ‘beneficial’ in terms of academic performance?
Anne: Yes sorry, we mainly find positive effects on academic achievement of those students
Jessica: @Anne I think I remember seeing a blog post in the last year or two of some classroom where kids had special pedals or things under their tables so they could keep moving, which was suposed to help them concentrate. I’m not sure it is works like that.
Jessica: @modkathryn, yes. Kids (at least little ones!) struggle with not paying attention to things they don’t need to know. They take everything in! Sometimes that’s not the best strategy. So, having less to get distracted by really helps.
Anne: @Jessica Does it also help when children see the pictures that go with the stories that they’re being read? Or is that distracting too?
Jessica: @Anne, pictures are helpful. They can be distracting if there are too many though. My lab published a study last year showing that just getting one illustration at a time helps (like the early ORT books). I didn’t know about the ORT books when I started. I discovered those as we were running the study when my son started reception! I’m sure that’s part of why those early ORT books are so good. And phonics, but that’s not my precise area.
Louise: Hi It’s Louise here – I’m hoping people out there have questions about nutrition and cognition especially whether breakfast is good for performance
Jessica: @Louise: is breakfast good for performance? Really? (I usually skip it myself 🙁 )
Abena: @Jessica-I remember a school I worked at in Liverpool arranging GCSE exam breakfasts cos they were sure it had an impact.
Victoria: @Louise, I was really pleased to see this piece of work by the Education Endowment Foundation on breakfast! https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/magic-breakfast
Louise: Yes I think that the evidence that performance is better after having breakfast than skipping breakfast for cognitive function is pretty strong. It’s hard to prescribe the “”best”” breakfast though so I would always say that something is better than nothing.
Abena: @Victoria. Interesting report. I wonder about the element of community-building that breakfasts would have and whether that is another explanation.
Victoria: @Abena, yes I read a study a little while ago that suggested exactly that, let me see if I can find it…
Jessica: @Louise, that’s helpful. I wonder if there are aging effects (beyond the point of this discussion), but I know several adults who claim to not be hungry in the morning.
Louise: In older adults, appetite may decrease – but we are talking very old – most people in the UK are now overweight – which at extremes is also not good for cognitive performance. I’m worried that the poor glucose regulation of pverwight and obese kids is also bad for their performance because although glucose is the main fuel for the brain, it is carefully regulated
ModKathryn: @louise what kind of measures do you use to measure nutrition and cognition?
Louise: Most studies use objective measures (paper and pencil or computer based tests) of learning and memory and are lab or classroom based.
Louise: We have published quite a few systematic reviews of the effects of breakfast on performance and the one which is most relevant here examined both academic outcomes and behaviour in the classroom. This can be downloaded here http://www.frontiersin.org/Human_Neuroscience/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00425/full#h1. But most of the studies have been done on younger kids – very few on adolescents and these are the ones most likelt to skip BF
Anne: @Louise What explanations are given for the impact of eating breakfast on cognitive function?
Abena: I’d be very interested to see some investigations into effects of different types of foods too, maybe even across different age groups.
ModKathryn: Do studies include health measures too? I was just thinking in terms of Abena’s question about community, maybe there are some studies that can distinguish between the health effects that are influencing academic achievement and the community effects influencing achievement… although I imagine that would be difficult to carry out!
Louise: The other problem is that studies are usually short term/acute and we have to rely on surveys to show an association between BF consumption and academic outcomes. One problem with this is called “”residual confounding”” and this is exactly what Kathryn’s comment brings up
Louise: In some of the studies we have done in poorer areas, kids were not eating BF because there was no one at home when they left for school in the morning and therefore unlikely to be there checking homework etc
Abena: There must be so many confounders. Arguably, ‘breakfasted’ kids likely come from calmer, more organised homes?
Jessica: @Abena, Yes! My colleague has done work showing it’s not really that kids who eat evening meals with parents are benefitting from that, but that homes that can do that are less chaotic to begin with.
Louise: I think you are right to a degree Abena – we also found that higher IQ is protective against the effects of missing BF. I think this can also relate to regular sleep patterns and general discipline (self or encouraged by parents)
ModKathryn: Very difficult to tease apart all the different factors – which is very common in developmental research!
Abena: In terms of sleep and memory, I read it’s good to review learning just before sleeping. Does that ring true to the researchers here?
Anne: @Abena Sleep is very important for consolidation of newly learned facts, but I’m not sure whether it works best to study just before going to bed. I can also imagine that tiredness comes into play then
Victoria: There is some evidence that learning a short time before bed means that the beneficial effects of sleep are greater, but we’ve recently been struggling to replicate it
Jessica: @Abena, yes. There have been several studies with older kids and adults where things learnt before bedtime were remembered and/or consolidated much better than things learned at other times. I think in our last chat (you can check transcript below) there was alot of discussion on this
Jessica: @Victoria, oh, that’s interesting. I was thinking of some York studies in my last comment.
Victoria: I suspect that there’s a balance between sleep being more beneficial when you learn before bed and your brain being more attentive earlier in the day. The best option is to do both- there’s some interesting work on the positive effects of spaced learning- that is engaging in multiple learning sessions over the day.
Abena: @Victoria @Jessica – interesting. My personal experience is it does help, but I’d be reluctant to advise kids to study just before bed.
Abena: @Victoria – isn’t the spaced learning effect very well-proven by now?
Victoria: @Abena, yes, but it hasn’t really been looked at in relation to the effects of sleep on consolidation
Jessica: I’ve also seen some studies about how blocked (massed) learning is more beneficial that people sometimes give it credit for.
Jessica: @Victoria, this paper of mine, hints at a benefit for massed learning and sleep, but it’s complicated. It would be fun to go into more depth with you sometime. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00184/full
Abena: @Victora – do you know about the Cerego app? It has changed my study habits dramatically. I think it’s the best thing since flashcards.
Victoria: @Abena, no I don’t- what’s the effect?
Anne: @Abena Sounds good, how does it work?
Abena: @Anne-it uses a sophisticated algorithm to put ‘fading’ memories in front of you regularly throughout the day. It calculates the best time for the next review, getting ever longer between sessions.
Jessica: [I’m making a note to look into Cerego app for my own students….]
Abena: @Anne – it’s based on spaced retrieval and I am amazed at the amount I’m retaining through it.
Victoria: @Abena, sounds fascinating- i’d love to know how the algorithm works!
Abena: @Jessica – do! I’m using it for the Noba Psychology course. I imagine setting up the questions takes a team a fair bit of time but what a worthwhile resource it then is.
ModKathryn: @abena – that is super interesting! Do you have to do lots of little tests so that it can keep updating which things to remind you of?
Abena: @modkathryn – it’s usually between 3-6 minutes to review anything from 15-50 concepts. It will prompt me a couple of times a day but I’m so addicted, I do it far more. It does discourage cramming though.
ModShane: Evening all. I hope you don’t mind me asking a question. When reviewing the Topic Guide – https://learning.imascientist.org.uk/factors-affecting-learning/ – I noticed some information about Artificial Food Colouring and E numbers. Why do we research food colouring so much more than other E numbers and food additives? What is it about the colours that affect the brain?
Louise: I’m not an expert on E numbers – some are natural ingredients and the evidence is very mixed as is the quality of the studies
Shane: @Louise Do you know why they might affect brain function? What is it about them? It’s just a bit of colour surely…
Abena: @ModShane-I’m interested too. Especially as some are ‘natural’ no? (Thinking of crushed beetles here…)
Louise: I think that some are hypothesised to alert neurotransmitter availability, or promote hyperactivity but this isnt something I know a lot about. It’s actually posible with normal dietary intake to modulate neurotransmitters but not something that you can do without a lot of effort. The classic one is the chocolate craving idea – and the (incorrect) belief tha this will affect serotonin – actually there’s too much protein for this to happen.
ModShane: @Louise TY. Maybe we can find an answer elsewhere…
Catherine W: Hi coming late to the chat – my work is similar to Anne’s – looking at the impact of physical activity on brain, cognition and academic achievement – but in secondary schools. We are investigating the impact of increasing physical activity during school PE on brain/cognition/mental heath/maths. Base line tests showed a depressingly low level of physical activity in everyday life – less than 25% of the 9,000+ students we surveyed did the recommended 60 mins of activity per day
Jessica: @Catherine W what age were they? Sadly I can imagine that. I don’t think I did 60min by that age (and that was before iPads, etc)
ModKathryn: @Catherine W that is a sad statistic. Can I ask where they lived? I.e. in rural or urban areas? I imagine children who live by the sea for example, are more likely to exercise everyday. And maybe children who live inner city are less likely?
Catherine W: @Anne what have you found so far?
Anne: @Catherine W What aspects of mental health are you examining?
Louise: @catherine – do you think that levels of PA have declined? are you looking at adolescents?
Catherine W: We are looking at adolescents – and yes the figures have declined in recent years, although not sure iPads are to blame as those sedentary types might have been reading instead of starting at screens in previous years.
Anne: @Catherine W I know that the same pattern is present in younger children, they’re less involved in PA as well
Catherine W: It’s a range of urban/rural participants, but the study has aimed for low socioeconomic status. Although there is evidence that the proportion of adolescents reaching that 60 min target has risen in Scotland over the past couple of years. Maybe the Daily Mile has something todo with it?
Jessica: @Catherine W. It’s good to know technology isn’t the only thing that could be causing it. But that would have been easier to “fix”
Catherine W: @Jessica – ah yes the screen ban! I think it’s quite a complex mix of factors – environment, social norms, concern about looking incompetent in from of one’s peers…
ModKathryn: @Catherine W What is the Daily Mile?
Catherine W: The Daily Mile has been described as a “”no-brainer”” of an intervention – pupils get to run around the playground for a mile (or thereabouts) every day – teachers report improved concentration and of course it’s good for health and wellbeing
Louise: @Catherine W do you think there is also a gender difference in PA willingness? it’s certainly true that girls skip BF for different reasons and more frequently than boys
Catherine W: @Louise yes certainly boys are more active than girls for complex reasons.
Louise: @Catherine W the other factor with both PA and BF is general health – if someone is healthy, in terms of weight, then their blood glucose regulation will be better, their transport of glucose to the brain better regulated – i think it is very worrying that
Victoria: @Louise, that’s really worrying! Do you think the key to tackling the issue lies with parents or children?
Louise: i think it’s bigger than that – it’s our environment, advertising to kids, easy access to high calorie processed foods, lack of PA etc. If it was something simple we would have dealt with it by now and I dont think that the sugar tax will be enough to curb the rise in obesity in children
Abena: @Victoria – I might suggest it lies in being aware of what’s in our food. So much hidden sugar & lack of awareness of impact.
Jessica: @Abena, I agree. I’ve been trying to eat healthier in 2018 and it’s just plain hard: so many foods in the shops are just loaded with sugar…
Louise: Yes but we also cook less, eat fewer meals together as a family, and have less awareness of where our food comes from. A few years ago we thought it was a high fat diet which made you fat now we are focussed on sugar but we dont eat just one macronutrient we eat whole foods.
Abena: @Louise – have any foods been identified that can increase beneficial neurotransmitters for learning? Is there a ‘learning’ diet?
Louise: @abena — in terms of breakfast we have shown that breakfast which is lower GI and gives a sustained blood glucose level are better for cognitive performance during the late morning compared to breakfasts which produce a big spike like energy drinks that
@Abena: @Louise. Thanks. Good to know as a parent too!
Victoria: @Louise, that’s really helpful- it’s great to have a relatively simple rule of thumb to follow!
Abena: Researchers – if you had one key piece of advice for teachers or parents when it comes to this topic, what would be your ultimate takeaway?
Jessica: Encourage children (and parents) to embrace the desired to re-read the same books over and over again.
Louise: I agree with @Jessica that the desire to read is critical for learning. From a nutritional point of view it would be always have breakfast and everything in moderation but nothing to excess
Anne: I would advice to stimulate children to move. This can be only short bouts, but don’t let them sit all day. @Louise I think that’s a great advice for adults as well
Victoria: Make time to sleep properly. Our lives are so full of goals and activities and technology that it’s easy to make time by squeezing out sleep. Turn off your screen an hour before bed at least a few times a week.
Catherine W: I’d encourage more physical activity in school – during PE or between lessons – no evidence to show it harms academic achievement and plenty to suggest it is good for cognitive function and mental/physical health
Louise: It is really important to create good habits in childhood so that we hopefully maintain these positive behaviours as adults whether that’s reading, walking, sport or food related
Abena: Thank you all. @Anne – is there a max sitting time before you should move? I used to do brain breaks where we’d do a Just Dance routine from Youtube (of their choice) but sometimes I worried I was interrupting their ‘flow’. This is if they were sitting hunched over desks for more than about 15-20 mins at a time (rather than discussing or moving around on a task).
Catherine W: @Abena I hear a lot of teachers express this concern, and also worries about it encouraging disruptive behaviour. I guess this can happen but if managed properly then ‘brain breaks’ can be constructive for sure
Anne: @Abena I think there is some advice on that circling around, but I’m not sure whether it is really based on hard evidence
Abena: @Catherine W I found they immediately got back to focusing on the task, rather than chatting or daydreaming so I did it fairly consistently. @Anne Yes – hard evidence would be good!
Anne: @Abena short PA breaks have been shown to have positive effects on children’s attention and concentration, so that makes perfectly sense
ModKathryn: @abena what age did you find it worked with?
Abena: All secondary. Surprisingly even older students welcomed the breaks though we had them far less often than the younger students.
Catherine W: @Abena that’s so interesting! There is evidence showing that ‘acute’ bouts of physical activity can improve inhibitory control (ie the ability to focus) and also working memory but a with a lot of these studies they need to be replicated more consistently
Abena: It’s like they were glad to get up and move, but equally grateful for the ensuing rest (as the routines can be quite demanding)
ModKathryn: Thank you for a great discussion this evening everyone – I’ve really learned a lot!
Jessica: @modkathryn, thank you!
Catherine W: @modkathryn thank you from me too
Anne: I found it really interesting as well, thanks!
Victoria: Thanks @modkathryn. Great questions @Abena. I hope the rest of your MSc goes very well!
Abena: Thank you! Thanks to everyone for the very clear and practical advice.
ModKathryn: The chat transcript will be posted online later this evening – so you can check back on any comments or resources if you want to. Hope to see you all in the next chat! Remember you can ask questions at any time on the site using the “Ask” tab.