How can we create optimal learning conditions?

First, we must recognize that the answer will vary
Ralf Steinberger, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Ralf Steinberger, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

We know from our own experience that not all days are alike. On some days we feel energetic, determined, and able to concentrate, while on others we are tired, worried, and unable to think straight. This is true of children as well. Fluctuations in their state of mind affect learning, and understanding where these fluctuations come from can help us create optimal learning conditions.

Learning requires the ability to simultaneously store and process information, which is determined by a child’s working memory. This ability is essential for logical reasoning, complex problem solving, text comprehension, and mental calculations.

“Working memory performance is not consistent; like energy levels and mood, it fluctuates from day to day and even from moment to moment.”

If you want to solve an equation with brackets, you need to keep intermediate results in your memory in order to find the solution. If you want to understand a complex sentence, you need to create a mental model that captures the various pieces of information contained in that sentence. If you want to solve a complex problem, you need to identify and store intermediate goals. Working memory is required for all of these tasks.

However, working memory performance is not consistent; like energy levels and mood, it fluctuates from day to day and even from moment to moment. One of my main research goals is to gain a better understanding of what causes these fluctuations.

If we can learn more about the circumstances that lead to better working memory performance, we can leverage this knowledge to improve learning outcomes. Using smartphones and an app programmed by our group (Florian Schmiedek’s lab), we assess working memory multiple times per day in children’s daily lives. This allows us to identify not only the fluctuations that take place, but also the situations that are associated with better working memory performance.

“If we can learn more about the circumstances that lead to better working memory performance, we can leverage this knowledge to improve learning outcomes.”

These smartphone-based assessments have shown that sleep, disturbance, and mood play an important role in working memory performance. Performance is worse when children (1) have slept poorly the night before, (2) feel distracted while working on tasks, and (3) are in a worse mood.

These studies also show that children differ in the extent to which their working memory performance is associated with such situations. For example, the effect of a bad mood on working memory performance is markedly stronger for some children than others. One group of children may show better performance when they are particularly active and interested, while those factors may be unrelated to the performance of other children. Moreover, some children’s working memory performance seems to be largely unaffected by their mood.

What are the implications of these findings? Most importantly, they suggest that when designing interventions to boost working memory performance, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. The circumstances that have the greatest impact on working memory performance appear to differ from child to child.

“The circumstances that have the greatest impact on working memory performance appear to differ from child to child.”

The good news is that this opens up a variety of exciting opportunities for future applications. If we want to create optimal learning conditions, we must recognize that these conditions will likely differ between children. Accordingly, we need to (a) determine which children are most likely to profit from which situations and (b) tailor those situations to each child’s needs. While this is clearly a more challenging task than delivering the same interventions to all children, it is much more likely to do justice to the complexity of children’s experiences and preferences.

In the future, ambulatory assessment procedures that enable us to examine the ebb and flow of mood and cognitive performance in children’s everyday lives will play a prominent role in assessing individual children’s needs as well as in delivering personalized interventions.

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