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Mixing it up: Transdisciplinary research offers new perspectives on education

Transdisciplinary research is building bridges between education, psychology and neuroscience, and helping practitioners in schools better understand critical educational issues.

‘The aim of the Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC) is to foster a more radical ‘‘bottom-up’’ integration of disciplines,’ according to SLRC researchers John Morris and Pankaj Sah of the Queensland Brain Institute and School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Queensland, writing in the latest issue of the Australian Journal of Education (AJE).

‘This is facilitated by resources such as an experimental educational neuroscience classroom, where teachers and students can both be monitored during lessons with an array of psychophysical and neurophysiological recording equipment, for example, eye trackers, heart rate and skin conductance measuring devices and EEG.’

Among the research being undertaken by researchers involved in the SLRC and reported in the AJE special issue are two ACER projects:

  • the Learner Processing of Feedback in Intelligent Learning Environments (LP-FILE) model, and
  • research into understanding maths anxiety.

The LP-FILE model

The LP-FILE model research, led by ACER Principal Research Fellow Dr Sacha DeVelle, investigates how learners process feedback in intelligent learning environments (ILEs).

An ILE is a computer-based learning system that uses principles of artificial intelligence in education to track a learner’s progress and intervene when he or she needs assistance.

Writing in ‘Towards a model of how learners process feedback: A deeper look at learning,’ Director of Assessment and Psychometric Research at ACER, Dr Michael Timms and co-authors Dr DeVelle and ACER Research Fellow Dulce Lay explain that typical ILE systems are able to flag errors in student responses and provide hints, including the last hint in the sequence or ‘bottom-out hint’ that provides the right answer.

‘It is assumed that feedback will help students to gain an understanding of key concepts and principles,’ Dr Timms and co-authors explain.

The first phase of the LP-FILE model pilot study of the project found that processing of feedback is related to prior knowledge, however prior knowledge does not always predict how learners interact with feedback.

The research team is now focusing on a creative insight problem-solving task that provides the number of trials necessary for neuroscientific experimentation.

Maths anxiety

A further line of research undertaken at ACER as part of the SLRC is focused on demonstrating that integrating research from education, psychology and neuroscience can lead to a better understanding of how maths anxiety develops and how to overcome it.

Writing in ‘Understanding and addressing mathematics anxiety using perspectives from education, psychology and neuroscience,’ the researchers say the integrated perspective allows for a better understanding of the experience of maths anxiety and has the potential for more effective intervention approaches.

Feeling anxious about mathematics has been linked to:

  • avoiding situations involving maths
  • poor performance on mathematics tasks, and
  • anxiety about situations involving maths (such as tests).

According to ACER Research Fellow Dr Sarah Buckley and co-authors, research suggests that to understand how maths anxiety affects learning, it is best to consider the ‘state’ and ‘trait’ forms of maths anxiety separately.

‘Specifically, we propose that state maths anxiety (or maths anxiety experienced on-task) can negatively affect performance while trait maths anxiety operates like an attitude, steering those who are anxious away from mathematics-related careers, courses and opportunities,’ Dr Buckley and co-authors explain.

By considering state and trait maths anxiety separately, Dr Buckley and co-authors say it is possible to identify strategies to reduce its negative effects – including relaxation, cognitive reappraisal and reading about and identifying with characters experiencing similar difficulties. ■

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