Brain Scans Predict Learning Better Than Test Scores

Traditional tests and grades now used may measure learning less accurately than scans of the brain, according to a study published in Science Advances. This news could upend how educators craft curricula and reveal a hidden link in the human mind.

Psychologists and philosophers have debated whether spatial thinking, like mental images of objects, is behind thinking that seems verbal. If so, teaching students to improve their spatial thinking skills could boost their verbal reasoning ability.

Researchers studied a “spatially-enriched” science course that emphasizes spatial thinking skills. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans showed changes in students’ brains during the course. Researchers then compared those changes to traditional learning measurements (e.g., changes in test scores).
The brain changes were better predictors of learning, especially “far transfer” learning, which is so deep that it helps students succeed at tasks they weren’t even taught to accomplish. Far transfer is notoriously tricky to capture with traditional tests.

The 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 initially evolved to help our primate ancestors nimbly navigate complex environments.

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