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Take your time to get things right

Research from the UCL-Birkbeck Centre for Educational Neuroscience shows pupils who take longer to respond in school tend to answer more accurately.

Teachers who deliver quick-fire lessons in which pupils are encouraged to be the first to put their hands up may be getting it wrong, new brain science research has revealed. 
 
Neuroscientists from the Centre for Educational Neuroscience asked 90 secondary pupils to carry out a series of maths and science puzzles based on challenging misconceptions found that those who took longer to respond tended to answer more accurately. 
 
The scientists say this ability to stop and think – known as ‘inhibitory control’ – is a key part of learning. Children have to understand, for example, that the earth is round even though it may look flat to them. Or that a hammer and a feather fall at the same speed unless air resistance slows the feather down – even though they will never have seen these objects fall at the same speed.  
 
The new research suggests that pupils who take longer to answer are more likely to be able to grasp and correct misconceptions and so encouraging pupils to take time to answer such challenging questions could help them to build knowledge and understanding.  
 
The team administered a series of 48 maths and science tests to the secondary school pupils. On each trial, participants read a statement relating to science or maths and pressed one of two keys to indicate whether they thought the statement was correct or incorrect. 
 
A control group answered questions which did not require them to inhibit a prior belief – so instead of being asked to answer whether a hammer or feather would fall fastest, for instance, they would need to show understanding that objects fall to the ground if not supported. 
 
Previous research has shown that the ability to make less impulsive motor responses is linked to the ability to suppress irrelevant information – and thereby more easily to grasp the correct answer, even when it is not the most obvious. 

Professor Michael Thomas, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Birkbeck and Director of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience presented the findings at the London Festival of Learning.

He said: “We all have to learn things that are at odds with our everyday experience, and that’s the nature of maths and science learning. So maybe you’ve just learned four is bigger than two: then you have to learn that ¼ is smaller than ½. To understand that, you have to understand that your existing knowledge may mislead you. Sometimes the thoughts you don’t have are as important as the thoughts you do.” 

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