19 June 2015

A new and innovative research classroom officially opened at The University of Melbourne earlier this year will allow researchers to explore and gain a deeper understanding of the neuroscience of learning.

The Science of Learning Research Classroom was officially opened in March by Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education and Training, Senator the Hon. Scott Ryan.

The classroom has been developed by researchers through the Australian Research Council (ARC) Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC), administered by The University of Queensland and awarded $16 million in ARC funding (commencing in 2013).

Researchers at the Queensland based Centre are collaborating with six Australian universities (including The University of Melbourne), the Australian Council for Educational Research, and nine partners, including Carnegie Mellon University (USA), Questacon, and University College London.

Understanding, measuring and promoting learning are three focal points for the Centre.

Currently our understanding of learning as a social activity is fairly limited, particularly in settings as complex as the conventional classroom.

However, the new Science of Learning Research Classroom offers an exciting new way for researchers to discover more about classroom-based learning.

This new high-tech classroom will enable researchers to examine exactly what happens in classrooms at a level of detail never before possible.

“The Queensland Brain Institute’s core business is neuroscience,” said Chief Investigator, Professor David Clarke.

“Our core business here in Melbourne is education; but there is such a thing as educational neuroscience and it is part of our mission to unpack just what that might mean and how it might inform classroom teaching and learning,” he said.

“Creating a new and powerful narrative linking these two fields is a critical aim of our work.”

The new ‘super classroom’ provides an essential research link between authentic school classrooms and the clinical laboratories of the educational neuroscientist.

“Early studies of classrooms naively tended to focus on the teacher—as though the teacher could control everything taking place,” explained Professor Clarke.

“Of course, what he or she does is only one element of what’s going on in any classroom at any given time.

“There’s also what the students are doing, who they’re interacting with, how they’re responding to what the teacher is saying, how they’re completing their tasks— the list goes on. Learning is taking place in all these interactions.”

Some of the research projects to be undertaken by the Centre include:

  • Sustained attention and self-regulation in the classroom—where researchers employ sensitive cognitive-neuroscientific techniques, such as eye-tracking, electroencephalography (EEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to characterize attentional processing and self- regulation in the classroom; this will further explore how these processes influence learning.
  • Mathematics anxiety and its impact on secondary school students—this project will investigate mathematics anxiety and its effect amongst a group of pre-service primary teachers. Their anxiety will be measured using behavioural and neuroscientific indices, which will then form the base line data for an intervention designed to reduce anxiety levels before these teachers begin their careers in education.
  • Predicting learner confusion for enhanced feedback and self-regulation—this project will investigate the foundations of learner confusion, particularly as it manifests in digital, self-directed learning environments.

The new classroom enables researchers to record and then analyse the wide range of student and teacher actions and interactions that happen in any given lesson, without disrupting the processes being studied.

In the new classroom, researchers sit behind a one-way mirror to observe the class.

Up to twenty-one fixed and portable radio microphones and eleven high definition video cameras are controlled by the technical team to ensure everything the researchers need is captured.

The huge amounts of data this project is generating will provide researchers with a wide range of opportunities.

“We can now try out new learning techniques and technologies and study every aspect of the students’ responses,” Professor Clarke explained.

“We can use the facilities to demonstrate innovative new teaching and learning approaches, and we can live-stream this to anywhere in the world. We will build a huge digital database of classroom interactions that will provide a rich resource for researchers for years to come.”

Building such a high-tech classroom requires expert advice. Mr Cameron Mitchell has been working with Professor Clarke for 14 years.

In that time, they have gone from setting up large, intrusive pieces of recording equipment in classrooms to the high-tech system now in place in the Science of Learning Research Classroom, where the recording equipment is barely noticeable.

“Up until now, we have been going into schools and lugging equipment all over the country and the world,” explained Mr Mitchell.

“Being able to custom build a multichannel audio and video capture system for educational research purposes has been a great opportunity.”

Mr Mitchell’s solutions take inspiration from large scale broadcast facilities.

“Our new classroom closely resembles the technology found in both broadcast TV studios and the outside broadcast trucks commonly seen working at live sporting events,” he explained.

“We have a high level of control over the cameras and microphones, capturing all data to individual HD video files that are all synchronised at the time of capture, making post-lesson playback of different camera angles possible.

“This gives us an extremely fine grained perspective on the classroom.”

Australian Research Council (ARC) Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Professor Aidan Byrne, welcomed the opening of the new classroom.

“What this new classroom will now do is capture and map information, through testing and measurement, within a classroom setting to advance education and teaching.

“The Science of Learning Research Centre specifically brings together education professionals and high quality researchers from the neuroscience and education disciplines to identify new teaching practices that are based on scientific evidence.

“The work of this Centre is important as it is exploring two distinct and critical components—how students learn and how this is manifested in the actual classroom,” said Professor Byrne.

For more information, please visit the Science of Learning Research Centre website, including the ‘Resources’ section.

This article is an adaption of a feature article published by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE), written by Catriona May. The ARC has reproduced parts of that feature with permission from the MGSE.



Image: Professor David Clarke in the Science of Learning Research Classroom control room.
Image courtesy: The University of Melbourne.