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Inside the Lab: Neuroscientists Study the Interplay of Learning

Students of various ages from the Pullman, Wash., school district visited the Educational Neuropsychology Laboratory at Washington State University last month. An array of lab equipment, ranging from body sensors to functional near-infrared spectroscopy, recorded their brain and body activity as they worked on classroom learning tasks. The results provide baseline data for ongoing research at the lab.

Related: Neuroscientists Study Real-Time Learning in Classroom Lab


How it works: In either a headset or a remote mounting, a light source is directed at the eye and a camera tracks the reflection of the light, changes in pupil dilation, blink rate, and other eye features. These data, sometimes coupled with a head-mounted camera, are used to map the specific points where a person looks and for how long.
How it's used: The data from the tracker is analyzed to understand what a person pays attention to; patterns of attention while working a series of mathematics problems or reading a new text, for example, can be used to measure a student's cognitive effort in understanding them.

Eye Tracking
Eye Tracking

Biometric Sensors

How it works: These are a wide array of noninvasive sensors, including those that measure heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, and the levels of the stress hormone cortisol on the skin.

How it's used: In education research, these are generally used to measure a person's stress level or engagement while performing a task or interacting with others. Over many trials, researchers can identify patterns in how students tend to respond to different situations. For example, studies have found spikes in cortisol and heart rate in people experiencing stereotype threat.

Biometric Sensors

Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIR)

How it works: A series of light emitters and detectors are mounted over the forehead on a flexible band, which a student wears as he performs tasks. The speed of light passing through the brain shows levels of oxygen in the blood; the higher the brain activity in a certain area, the more oxygen will be used. These are mapped onto a computer image that changes color in response to changes in brain activity.

How it's used: An fNIR can track a period of activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, allowing researchers to assess cognitive processes such as attention, decisionmaking, and problem-solving.

Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy
Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy

Keystroke Dynamics

How it works: A software program records when each key or mouse button is pressed as a person works on a computer. This measures pauses and patterns of typing, as well as spelling, capitalization, and other typing habits.

How it's used: Speed and pauses in typing can help researchers identify when a student is processing information quickly and easily, and when it requires more effort or attention. This is often used in connection with eye-tracking to gain insight into how a student comes to a particular answer, rather than simply looking at the end result.

Keystroke Dynamics

Electroencephalogram (EEG)

How it works: A net of electrical sensors are set on a person's scalp. They measure electrical activity made by neurons firing in the brain and translate it into a series of wave patterns on a computer screen.

How it's used: In a single person, an EEG records thousands of brain activities at the same time. To tease out how different parts of the brain work together to respond to a specific stimulus, researchers take many EEG measures in multiple people and average the results to find consistent patterns.


Motion Capture

How it works: A student or group of students is filmed from multiple angles while completing a task or interacting with others. The video is separately analyzed for "movement signatures" associated with different emotions or cognitive processes; for example, leaning forward when engaged, crossing arms to disengage, etc.

How it's used: Body language captured on video can help researchers understand an interaction more than just a transcript, particularly when a student's body language suggests disagreement or disengagement even while she is agreeing with a teacher.

Motion Capture
Source: Sarah Sparks | Design & Visualization: Sumi Bannerjee | Photos & Video: Jerome Pollos for Education Week

Vol. 35, Issue 23, Pages 12-13

Published in Print: March 3, 2016, as Inside the Lab
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