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BrainCanDo research projects
Grow your musical expertise and become an effective learner: Goldsmiths, University of London
External collaborative research project
Music and the brain research project
Many studies have found that there are positive relationships between musical and intellectual abilities. However, very little has been known about the nature of these relationships and as such it has not been possible to substantiate claims that musical training has a direct causal impact upon academic achievement in students.
This is why as a part of the BrainCanDo educational neuroscience project at Queen Anne’s School and Sutton Valence, we are working with researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London to further understand how musical participation relates to intelligence, and to specific gains in academic achievement in pupils over a five-year period.
Data from a sample of 312 Queen Anne’s girls was collected in 2015 revealed that there were associations between musical training, musical listening skills and academic performance. The same girls were revisited and tested again in 2016 and this has enabled the researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London to begin to draw comparisons of both musical abilities and academic achievement in the same sample of adolescent pupils over the course of one complete academic year.
Analysis of the data collected during this second phase of the project showed that musical activity was a significant predictor of academic achievement in this cohort, with students who increased their musical activity from 2015-2016 showing the greatest gains in academic achievement.
This is the first longitudinal study with secondary school students to show that more active musical participation in a naturalistic setting (i.e. without any special music intervention) does have a positive impact upon academic achievement. Because of the short time scale of this effect, it is possible that the immediate impact of musical activities on academic achievement may relate to attitudinal changes taking place in the students. It may be that through learning to play a musical instrument, or in perfecting a musical skill, students are recognising that achievement is linked to focused and determined practice.
Music is a good model for the plasticity of the teenage brain. Through learning to play a musical instrument, or to sing in a choir, very specific and unique demands are placed on the human nervous system. Because the brain is plastic, it changes in response to this kind of skill practice and we can see such changes at a structural and functional level using neuroimaging techniques.
If pupils can understand the dynamic nature of their developing brains, this can help them to foster a positive approach to learning and help them to recognise that musicians are not born brilliant but achieve brilliance through effort, hard work, and practice. This research demonstrates the motivational power of music and illustrates how music education can genuinely help our students to become more effective learners and to achieve more highly.
Müllensiefen, D., Harrison, P., Caprini, F., & Fancourt, A. (2015). Investigating the importance of self-theories of intelligence and musicality for students’ academic and musical achievement. Frontiers in Psychchology, 6:1702. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01702
Müllensiefen, D., Shapiro, R., Harrison, P., Bashir, Z., & Fancourt, A. (2017). Musical abilities and academic achievement – what’s the difference? 25th Anniversary of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM)
Laugh and the world laughs with you, the power of emotional contagion in the classroom: University of Reading
External collaborative research project
Motivation contagion research project
This project investigates how attitudes and behaviour towards learning spread throughout a classroom. Can an attitude be ‘caught’? And if so, do the patterns of contagion follow social dynamics?
The initial study focussed on identifying motivation similarities between friends in. Simply put, we asked the question “do friends have similar motivation in school?”
Data was collected from 225 pupils from Queen Anne’s School from across four different year groups (L4, 4, U4, L5). These students completed surveys comprising subject specific and subject general motivation scales and then provided their social network information.
The University of Reading research team calculated an assortativity index for each scale. Assortativity, or assortative mixing, is a preference for students to attach to others that are similar. Results showed that motivation traits are not consistently similar across year groups. Younger students show similarity in levels of internal sense of value for studying, and their extent of engagement in learning. Older students showed mostly weak assortativity where the results were not as strong. However, the oldest students that we have so far analysed (L5) showed significant similarity in perceived math competence.
It is interesting that the younger students showed similarities across general traits in motivation at school, whereas the older students showed similarity in mathematics more specifically. These results tell us, as we would expect, that friends tend to have similar motivation to study but separate year groups have different similarity patterns. Meaning, there is no general trend across the school as a whole. It is very interesting for us to see hubs of similarity within the year groups, as it is the individual differences of each student that contribute to the overall differences we see between the separate year groups.
This initial research project used questionnaires to look at similarities between friends and motivation. The next phase of this research project will be to further explore these results using state-of-the-art brain imaging technology. Such technologies enable us to actually see changes taking place in the brains of pupils who are similar in their levels of motivation and those who are different. A selection of pupils from Queen Anne’s school will be given the opportunity to visit the brain imaging facilities at University of Reading to participate in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan (fMRI).
The findings from this project will enable us to see how the interactions amongst peer groups in school actually shape the way in which the adolescent brain develops. As educators we can use this information to inform our interactions with different year groups.
Burgess, L.G., Riddell, P., Fancourt, A. & Muarrayama, K. (2016). The Role of Social Contagion in Influencing Child and Adolescent Education: A Review. Mind, Brain & Education
Burgess, L.G., Riddell, P., Fancourt, A. & Muarrayama, K. (2017). Investigating Similarity in Motivation Between Friends during Adolescence. American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting
Positive self-talk can boost exam performance: University of Reading
External collaborative research project
Self-affirmation research project
Self-affirmation is a process whereby people receive positive feedback from others, and engage in positive reflections of their own characteristics. It has previously been reported that university students who engage in a process of self-affirmation prior to performing a cognitive task, actually perform better in the cognitive task relative to students who engage in a control task. In addition, research also indicates that university students benefit from engaging in a cognitive task known as the alternative uses task. This requires individuals to consider unusual uses for an object, which is thought to improve cognitive flexibility. The aim of this research was to explore the effects of self-affirmation, and alternative uses, for improving performance on a cognitive task in year 9 and 10 pupils at Queen Anne’s School.
138 pupils from Queen Anne’s School participated in the study. Participants engaged in one of three 10 minute tasks:
(i) Self-affirmation (45 girls)
(ii) Alternative uses task (43 girls)
(iii) Word association (the control condition) (50 girls)
The self-affirmation task required participants to complete a questionnaire which asked questions about positive aspects of the self and other positive characteristics. The alternative uses (AU) task required participants to write down alternative uses for a list of common objects, e.g. the stimulus would be the word newspaper and responses would be required which relate to uses for a newspaper (e.g. holding fish and chips, starting a fire etc.). Finally, the word association (WA) task simply required participants to write down the first word that came to mind in response to reading a word. This task is designed to be instinctual, thus not requiring depth of thought, and simply ensures that the participants are engaging in a task for 10 minutes.
The findings revealed that those pupils who engaged in the self-affirmation intervention and the alternative uses intervention produced better performance on the cognitive test than pupils who engaged in the control task (simple word association). This indicates that academic performance can be improved simply by spending 10 minutes considering ones positive characteristics and strengths, or by engaging in a task which encourages mental flexibility (alternative uses). Both of these interventions can be easily self-administered. Interestingly, when the specific age of the girls was considered, the data indicated that it was only the older year 10 girls (aged 15) who benefited from the self-affirmation task.
One possibility is that girls of this age are particularly receptive to thoughts and feelings relating to their character because it is an age at which social evaluation amongst peers is commonplace, and individuals are building their sense of self in relation to others. This could account for the benefits of self-affirmation. Another possibility is that simply an increase in positive mood produced by reflecting on one’s positive characteristics can lead to better cognitive performance. The mechanism by which engaging in alternative uses improves cognitive performance could be due to increased mental flexibility in combination with increased confidence; by generating alternative uses for objects, pupils may build confidence in their cognitive abilities, which in turn, may lead to increased performance on pattern problem solving tasks such as the Raven Progressive matrices.
Overall, this investigation indicates that reflecting positively on one’s self may be a useful tool for improving academic performance at school.
Lamport, D., & Butler, L. (2015). An investigation into the effects of Self Affirmation and Alternative Uses on cognitive performance in Queen Anne’s School. Queen Anne’s School Report
Engendering a growth mindset to promote academic success
Internal research at Queen Anne’s School
The concept of mindset began life as the rather academic sounding ‘implicit beliefs of intelligence’. It is the view every person adopts about themselves. One either subscribes to an entity belief that intelligence is unchangeable: every person has a finite amount of intelligence and there is not a lot that can be done to change it; or an incremental belief that intelligence can be improved through a person’s own activities. Over time these terms have become simplified to denote a ‘growth mindset’ or ‘fixed mindset’. The beliefs that a person holds about the nature of intelligence can dictate how they respond to challenge, success and failure. This theory has been hugely influential within the field of education.
There is now a wealth of research to support the notion that students in possession of a ‘growth mindset’ approach are far more likely to succeed academically and have better life outcomes compared to those with a ‘fixed mindset’ approach. Recent findings from the field of neuroscience revealed that incorrect answers lead to greater activity in the limbic system of the brains of those with fixed mindsets. Put simply, when a pupil holds a fixed mindset any failure is seen as a direct threat and as such the emotional areas of the brain are activated. This activation reflects their stress at others’ perceived judgement of them as not clever. This heightened level of stress can impede learning and so this meant that the fixed mindset participants did not attend to the correct answer because they were so focused on the perceived damage to their self-concept and this prevented them from learning. Alternatively, those with a growth mindset were able to attend to the correct answer, learn from their mistakes and consequently make greater improvements.
The above study is a lovely clear indication that a growth mindset does lead to direct educational improvements and that this is due to neural activity in the emotional areas inhibiting learning from feedback. Ultimately, this ability learn from mistakes and apply that knowledge to improve is the basis of intelligence. It is known that increases in intelligence are accompanied by neural changes, specifically an increase in grey matter density in the relevant areas; thus improving intelligence by adopting a growth mindset should ultimately shape the developing brains of our pupils.
Through our BrainCanDo programme at Queen Anne’s School we have worked to deliver mindset workshops to all year groups in the school. The purpose of such workshops was to educate our pupils about the nature of brain plasticity and the importance of working to adopt a growth mindset approach. Additionally, we resourced teaching staff in the school with a selection of key terms and phrases that could be used when giving pupil feedback in order to foster a growth mindset approach.
The impact of such interventions are clearly demonstrated in the case study examples of two pupils who by the end of their time at Queen Anne’s School, exemplified a growth mindset approach and went on to achieve exceptional examination results:
- “I’m hard working. The grades I got at GCSE didn’t come easily to me, I put effort in to get there”
- “I think I have just been gradually improving over time and have come a long way”
- “I work hard consistently and work to the best of my abilities in every lesson”
Maximising memory performance in the classroom
Internal research at Queen Anne’s School
Psychological research has shown that although short-term memory has a limited capacity our long term memories have an unlimited capacity therefore we can use a strategy known as ‘chunking’ to maximise memory efficiency.
The idea is simply to make a group of items into one meaningful item (the ‘chunk’) that, when recalled, brings to mind its constituent items. This method works because it leads to connections formed between neurons. If we were to try to recall seven individual items, the brain would have to search for seven different memory traces, to recall a chunk, just one trace is needed. This then effectively sets off a chain reaction and searches for its linked (associated) traces, thereby making the whole process more efficient.
One way in which this BrainCanDo informed teaching strategy has been applied in the classroom at Queen Anne’s School is through the creation of stories to aid the memory of key scientific facts that need to be learned. The teacher leads the story but students add key elements to it to create memory point triggers. Asking pupils to also imagine smells, tastes, sounds and sights also enhances memory as it adds contextual cues to the information that is to be remembered. This teaching strategy has been used with a lower school year group to aid learning of food groups.
This is an effective way to improve memory and retention because the creation of a story involves the deep processing of material that pupils are trying to learn. The depth to which information is processed is directly associated with the later recall of that information. Items that are processed in a very shallow manner e.g. simply hearing a fact repeated are recalled less well than items that are processed by deep processing e.g. being encouraged to think about the application of that fact, its meanings and how it relates to other knowledge.
How can we repeat information to ensure it enters long term memory, without promoting rote learning? Here variety is key – by approaching the same topic from a different angle/method, different pathways within the memory trace are being recruited and new connections formed. Our brains have processing limits and by understanding these limits, we can work with them to maximise memory and retention.
This use of mnemonic technique allows students to recall just one word that acts as a trigger for the words it contains. By keeping just one word in short-term memory (STM) less of the finite capacity is used and therefore precious resources are preserved.
Empowering pupils to effectively manage stress
Internal research at Queen Anne’s School
Through the BrainCanDo programme at Queen Anne’s School we have sought to educate pupils about the nature of stress, the bodily response to stress and equip them to manage this process for themselves. It is known that stress serves a valuable purpose and we want to ensure that our pupils understand this: we have not tried to remove the necessary stressors from our pupils but rather have given them the tools needed to effectively manage the stressors they will inevitably face throughout their time in school and beyond.
We know that stress is good. Without it our pupils would not respond to the alarm clock in the morning, turn up to lessons or slam on the breaks in an emergency. But stress is also bad: if left unmanaged it can lead to headaches, ulcers, anxiety and depression. We recognise that every pupil has an optimal level of stress and we have educated both teachers and pupils about the role of individual differences in the stress response. BrainCanDo recognises that it is not possible to change personalities or to avoid the sources of stress but we can empower pupils to manage the stress response once they understand what is happening in the body.
Just as the stress response can be considered in the long or the short term, so can our coping strategies. These can broadly be divided into problem focused and emotion focused methods. Problem focused methods tackle the source of the problem e.g. If the source of stress is impending exams and the volume of revision, then a problem focused approach may be to create a revision timetable. When we can’t dealt with the source of stress, however, we must develop a way of managing the stress when it arises and this is where emotion focused methods come in useful e.g. visualisation or breathing techniques to reduce the stress response.
The BrainCanDo programme offered pre-exam workshops for pupils at Queen Anne’s School. The learning outcomes for these workshops was to educate pupils about the nature of the stress response so that they recognised the physiological indicators of stress. The sessions then provided pupils with a range of strategies for effective revision to build a profile of problem-focused strategies for stress management. We also worked with pupils to demonstrate a range of further techniques they could use to manage the immediate emotional stress response as it occurred.
Through the delivery of such workshops the BrainCanDo programme was able to empower young women in Queen Anne’s School with the strategies needed to recognise and manage stress for themselves.