Brain scans are best tools to test learning in students. – Interesting Engineering


Spatial thinking also enhances human reasoning

Brain scans measure students' learning better than exams — here's the proof

Sketch of human brain parts and their cognitive functions.

In their study, the researchers highlight that psychologists and neuroscientists are still unsure if verbal reasoning and spatial thinking abilities complement each other. However, the results of their research clear this confusion. The brain scans revealed that as the students learned spatial thinking, they also experienced improved verbal reasoning.

According to the researchers, these findings also validate the Mental Model theory, which suggests that humans often use their knowledge of space and learning from related past experiences over logical reasoning to navigate complex settings. The approach supports the belief that human brains ‘spatialize’ verbal and written information the same. However, there are some limitations to the study as well.

Cortes told IE, “one of the main limitations is that, since the study was done in the real world (i.e. in a real high school class), we could not randomly assign students to take the class versus a control class. Instead, we used the closest possible approximation to random assignment–a quasi-experimental technique called propensity score matching.” This method reduces selection bias in real-world experiments where randomization of groups is impossible.

He further added, “essentially, we measured students from both the Geospatial and control groups on their overall “propensity” to enroll in the Geospatial course, and then used these measures to closely match each Geospatial student to a control student (taking a similar AP science class) who was equally likely to have taken the course based on baseline characteristics (e.g. gender, income, spatial ability, exposure to GIS mapping).”

The researchers are now aiming to replicate these results with a follow-up study while exploring new secrets related to learning and brain scans.

The complete study can be viewed in the journal Science Advances.


Current debate surrounds the promise of neuroscience for education, including whether learning-related neural changes can predict learning transfer better than traditional performance-based learning assessments. Longstanding debate in philosophy and psychology concerns the proposition that spatial processes underlie seemingly nonspatial/verbal reasoning (mental model theory). If so, education that fosters spatial cognition might improve verbal reasoning. Here, in a quasi-experimental design in real-world STEM classrooms, a curriculum devised to foster spatial cognition yielded transfer to improved verbal reasoning. Further indicating a spatial basis for verbal transfer, students’ spatial cognition gains predicted and mediated their reasoning improvement. Longitudinal fMRI detected learning-related changes in neural activity, connectivity, and representational similarity in spatial cognition–implicated regions. Neural changes predicted and mediated learning transfer. Ensemble modeling demonstrated better prediction of transfer from neural change than from traditional measures (tests and grades). Results support in-school “spatial education” and suggest that neural change can inform future development of transferable curricula.

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