Brain scans reveal the hidden shape of thinking and predict students’ learning better than test scores

The traditional tests and grades that educators have long used may measure learning less accurately than scans of the brain, according to a new study published in Science Advances. The paper, authored by a team of researchers from seven universities and led by Georgetown neuroscientists, could not only upend how educators craft curricula, but reveals a hidden link in the human mind.

“For a long time, psychologists and philosophers have debated whether spatial thinking, like mental images of objects, is actually hiding underneath thinking that seems verbal,” explains Adam Green, the study’s senior author and Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor at Georgetown College of Arts and Sciences in the Department of Psychology. “If this is true, then teaching students to improve their spatial thinking skills should boost their verbal reasoning ability.”

The researchers studied a “spatially-enriched” science course offered at public high schools in Virginia that emphasizes spatial thinking skills, like building maps and planning how cities can be reconfigured to reduce energy consumption. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans showed changes in students’ brains as they learned the course curriculum, and these changes were compared to the ways that learning is traditionally measured (e.g., changes in test scores).

The brain changes were far better predictors of learning, especially a kind of learning called “far transfer,” which is so deep that it helps students succeed at tasks they weren’t even taught to accomplish. Far transfer is something of a holy grail for educators and notoriously difficult to capture with traditional tests.

Making Models in the Mind

The team’s findings support Mental Model Theory, or MMT, which posits that when humans comprehend spoken or written language the mind “spatializes” this information, relying on systems in the brain that originally evolved to help our primate ancestors nimbly navigate complex environments.

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