Education & Family

Where teachers' brains detect student confusion

Researcher and volunteer at MRI scanner
Image caption Researchers say the study could eventually help teachers guide the learning of their pupils

Scientists have identified the part of the brain that teachers use to detect when their pupils do not understand what they are being taught.

Researchers found that a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex picks up how mistaken students are.

They say their findings provide significant insight into the brain processes that allow a teacher to understand a student's learning.

They also found that other regions of the frontal lobe play important roles.

The study was carried out by a team from Royal Holloway, University of London, and their findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Volunteers were asked to act as a teacher as they observed the responses of another volunteer playing a computer game.

The acting teachers had to indicate whether the students' decisions during the game were correct or not, as they lay in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner.

Image copyright Dr Matthew App
Image caption MRI scan of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex

Key structures

The researchers then used mathematical modelling in combination with the MRI data to see which areas of the brain tracked how wrong the students' beliefs were about their responses.

"This is a signal in the brain that tells us 'That person is wrong about something'," says the report's lead author, Matthew Apps.

"For teachers, understanding what your students believe is a vital part of the teaching process, allowing meaningful and useful feedback to be provided."

Dr Apps, who now works at Oxford University, says the study identifies some of the key structures in the brain that are important for teaching.

"These findings provide the foundations for understanding how the brain works when people are teaching others, which may allow us to develop tools in future to help teachers guide the learning of their students."

The researchers also discovered other regions of the frontal lobe that played important roles when the teachers were thinking about the student's predictions, or simply monitoring whether the student made the correct response or not.

Prof Narender Ramnani, of the psychology department at Royal Holloway, says the study sheds some light on a little-understood area.

"These findings have implications for understanding how the brains of teachers compute errors in their students' understanding, and how teachers provide feedback that guides student learning."

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