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Neuroscience-based educational intervention can improve primary school maths and science performance

Pupils who participated in the programme made the equivalent of +1 additional month’s progress in maths and +2 additional months’ progress in science, compared to those in the control group.

Pupils and teacher in a classroom where tests using a neuroscience-based educational programme were carried out
Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

Absorbing new ideas in maths and science often involves overcoming pre-existing incorrect beliefs. For example, when learning that the earth is round, children have to first overcome the compelling belief that it is flat. Research investigating brain activation of adults completing maths and science problems shows that this requirement to inhibit pre-existing beliefs is true even for science experts. It is not that experts have completely replaced their naive beliefs with new more advanced scientific ideas, but rather that experts have become better at inhibiting those early beliefs in order to allow the more advanced scientific ideas to come to the fore.

Researchers from the Centre for Educational Neuroscience (a collaboration between Birkbeck; University College London; and the UCL-Institute of Education), in partnership with LEARNUS, have developed a computer game called ‘Stop and Think’, for teachers to use, that will help primary school children use their inhibition skills effectively in maths and science lessons to overcome their naive beliefs and learn the correct concepts.

A large-scale randomised control trial was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and Wellcome in order to evaluate the efficiency of this computer game. 6672 children from year 3 (7- to 8-year-olds) and year 5 (9- to 10-year-olds) in 89 schools across England took part in the study. Pupils who participated in the programme made the equivalent of +1 additional month’s progress in maths and +2 additional months’ progress in science, on average, compared to children in the lessons-as-usual control group.

To check whether this impact was due to the ‘Stop and Think’ game specifically, or was a result of the additional pupil engagement and motivation arising from having a novel and fun computer-based activity at the start of lessons more generally, schools were offered an alternative computer-based programme that did not include any content from ‘Stop and Think’. Pupils who received ‘Stop and Think’ also made more progress than pupils in this ‘active’ control group. Finally, when interviewed, a majority of teachers felt that ‘Stop and Think’ had a positive impact on the mathematical and science abilities of the pupils in their class.

These results have high security: 4 out of 5 on the EEF padlock scale. The cost of using ‘Stop and Think’ is very low and is estimated to be a little over £5 per child over a three-year period. Further development and evaluation of the ‘Stop and Think’ computer game is underway.

Professor Denis Mareschal (Director of Birkbeck's Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development), Principal Investigator of the UnLocke project, says:

 “This project illustrates how findings from cognitive neuroscience, when properly interpreted, can have a positive impact on educational practice and outcomes.

“‘Stop and Think’ demonstrates the effectiveness of computer-based learning activities designed around evidenced-based educational practices in the modern classroom”.

Teachers involved in the study said:

“It allowed me to develop my understanding of how the children in my class learn and to analyse what they know, how clearly they understand concepts and to identify misconceptions that some/most or all children in my class have.”

“It gave me an insight into how children’s ideas can change when given thinking time and how they are able to reason as to why something is right or wrong.”

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