Connecting the Dots Between Engagement and Learning

Connecting the dots between engagement and learning

We’ve all heard the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” but new research from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh finds that it isn’t all about repetition. Rather, internal states -- such as arousal, attention, motivation, and engagement -- can also have an impact on learning.

The collaborative research, published in Nature Neuroscience, examined how changes in internal states can affect the learning process using brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. Findings suggest that changes in internal states can systematically influence how behavior improves with learning, thus paving the way for more effective methods to teach people skills quickly, and to a higher level of mastery.

Not Just About Getting Better

Internal states are known to effect brain-wide neural activity, and studies continue to explore their impact on motor control, sensory processing, and cognition. However, the specific interaction between internal states and learning is not well understood.

“We know that neural activity changes as we’re learning different things, because our behavior gets better with practice,” explains Jay Hennig, a graduate student in neural computation and machine learning at Carnegie Mellon. “However, what we’re finding is that it’s not just about getting better. All of the things that go on alongside of learning, such as one’s level of attention or state of arousal, play a significant role.”

Using a BCI learning paradigm, the researchers observed how neural activity changed while  subjects performed tasks by moving a cursor on a computer screen using only patterns of neural activity.

As the study unfolded, the team began to notice occasional large, abrupt changes within the motor cortex whenever the subject was surprised with a change in the task. (Changes ranged from brief pauses to shifts of the BCI mapping.) At these moments, the subjects' pupils dilated, suggesting that the abrupt change was the neural manifestation of an internal state: engagement.

Levels of Engagement and Attention

Ultimately, the research suggests that level of engagement or attention can make things easier or harder to learn, depending on the context. "You might have imagined that the brain would be set up with a clear separation of functions, like motor areas to motor control, and emotional areas to emotional control, and sensory areas to sensory representation," says Aaron Batista, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Instead what they found was the internal state reaching into a motor area. "It could be that we can harness that signal to improve learning," says Bastista.

"The findings here might one day help people learn everyday skills, such as math or dance, more quickly and to a higher level of proficiency," says Byron Yu, professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

StepUp Note

One of the key goals of the StepUp Program is self-evaluation because self-evaluation is the key to motivation, and motivation is the key to engagement, and engagement is the key to “learn and remember.” This research shows the us what happens in the brain when we are engaged in learning. It shows us how our behavior can affect our learning, and how our learning can affect our behavior.

Engagement is how we describe the behavior of a person who is using sustained attention and effort to complete any learning task. This research shows that more engagement means more learning. How can we promote engagement in learning? One of our most powerful tools is self-evaluation. In the StepUp program, children use rhythm to practice learning basic skills. They can self-evaluate how well they match the model, and we see that they change their movements in order to “make a match.” StepUp's cloud-based programs enrich any PreK - Grade 2 curriculum. Try it free for 30 days! 

Note by Nancy W Rowe, M.S., CCC/A

Reposted from Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering.