Educational neuroscience and the role of feedback: What’s in a word?

The Centre for Science of Learning @ ACER brings together researchers from neuroscience, cognitive psychology and education to better understand the underlying processes that lead to successful learning.

This relatively new interdisciplinary field, known as educational neuroscience, places greater emphasis on measuring the learner’s cognitive processes and brain activity when carrying out a learning task.

One line of research currently underway at the Centre for Science of Learning @ ACER investigates how feedback impacts on learning within computer-mediated educational programs. An intelligent learning environment (ILE) is one such type of program.

ILEs track a learner’s progress over a series of tasks and intervene when assistance is needed. There has been a recent focus on eye-tracking and electroencephalogram (EEG) measures using ILEs, to better understand what areas of the feedback message are of most relevance to the learner. For example, eye-tracking procedures allow us to measure how long a learner’s gaze focuses on particular elements of the feedback message. EEG waves can measure electrical activity in the brain, as a response to feedback.

Interestingly, there is a scarce amount of published work that addresses the psycholinguistic content of such feedback. Psycholinguistics describes the important relationship between linguistic and psychological processes. The modern era of psycholinguistics falls under the umbrella of cognitive neuroscience, and the experimental methods described earlier are often used in the psycholinguistics laboratory.

A closer look at research investigating feedback in general, and ILEs in particular, shows that the dichotomous one-word response, such as ‘yes/no’, ‘right/wrong’, still prevails. While sentence-level feedback, such as ‘that’s not correct’; ‘try again’; ‘think about your answer’, is also used, findings reveal that the content often lacks information on how to carry out the task effectively. ACER’s work is particularly focused on providing feedback that enhances successful error correction, and research shows this is a crucial skill that learners need to develop.

The psycholinguistic aspects of the message are often overlooked due to the focus on learning outcomes following feedback, rather than the quality of the feedback itself. Feedback is about language, however, and the cognitive processes needed to understand its message.

ACER’s recent research places the psycholinguistic properties of feedback at the forefront, with the primary aim of translating those findings into classroom practice. Recent findings from the Learner Processing of Feedback in Intelligent Learning Environments project will be published in 2016.

For more information:

Dr Sacha DeVelle

The Centre for Science of Learning @ ACER