Predicting academic outcomes: neuroimaging provides novel insights

BilliTheCat, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
BilliTheCat, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Educational neuroscientist Tanya Evans describes how neuroimaging studies can add value to classroom research.

Meeri Kim: What are your research interests?

Tanya Evans: I’m interested in how brain development relates to individual differences in academic skills, whether that be in children with learning disabilities or the general population. The bulk of my work uses neuroimaging methods – in particular, structural and functional MRI – to study brain development longitudinally across the lifespan. I’m interested in how the brain changes over development, and how these changes relate to skills in individual children.

For instance, my colleagues and I performed a longitudinal study where we looked at the trajectory of children’s math skills from age 8 to 14. Using both structural and resting-state functional MRI data from when the children were eight years old, we were able to predict based on that early brain structure and function which students would make significant improvements in skill relative to other children their age over the subsequent 6 years. Greater gray matter volume and higher connectivity in a network of regions known to support math processing were indicative of gains made over this time course.

MK: You’ve recently joined the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia as a faculty member. What are the advantages of being at a school of education rather than a neuroscience department?

TE: I joined the School of Education about a year ago, and I’m really excited because it gives me a unique perspective whereby the research questions can be directly informed by educators and educational researchers. Working in an interdisciplinary field such as educational neuroscience requires many perspectives with varied expertise. Collaborating with educational researchers who are versed in conducting research in a classroom setting has allowed me to open up a different avenue of research where I’m thinking about ways in which we can look at brain metrics in a more applied setting.

We’re currently working on a study that involves evaluating student outcomes from a K-8 curriculum re-design via a randomized control trial. We plan to use neuroimaging to provide insight into which brain mechanisms are driving skill improvements.

MK: What does the curriculum change involve, and what effect do you expect it to have on children?

TE: There’s a lot of interest in the best early predictors (i.e. in kindergarten) of how a child is going to do in school later on. You would think that early math and reading skills would be the best predictors of long-term math and reading outcomes, but other seemingly unrelated skills (such as memory and attention) are actually better indicators of success. So, having a curriculum and an intervention that focuses on boosting these foundational skills is the intent of our work.

“You would think that early math and reading skills would be the best predictors of long-term math and reading outcomes, but other seemingly unrelated skills (such as memory and attention) are actually better indicators of success.”

We’ll be studying children from charter schools who have implemented the Core Knowledge Curriculum starting in kindergarten and extending through eighth grade. The curriculum is shifted towards integrating across subjects in a way that focuses on cultivating early general knowledge and memory. It makes sure topics in, say, the science and history classrooms are linked together, which boosts children’s interest, focus, and curiosity in the subject material, and leads to better retention.

Interestingly, the curriculum does not change anything about how reading and math are instructed, but those are the outcome variables that we’re most interested in.

MK: Do you have any preliminary results so far?

TE: We have scores from children in third grade, and we’re currently analyzing scores from children in fifth grade. Based on the results so far, we see solid gains in reading and math skills in children who received this curriculum relative to children in schools with a standard curriculum.

Our plan is to use neuroimaging when we follow up with these same children in eighth grade and compare them to children who were in comparable schools with a standard curriculum. We expect to see both structural and functional differences in the brains of children who have received this general knowledge curriculum. I have a strong hypothesis about the brain systems that support these skills – for instance, core memory systems in the brain. General knowledge increases children’s knowledge base, and learning these new facts relies on and improves the brain’s declarative memory system.

Tanya Evans is a Research Assistant Professor in the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. Her work focuses the relationship between individual differences in academic skills and brain development in children.

The IMBES Conference
The purpose of the biannual IMBES Conference is to facilitate cross-cultural collaborations in biology, education and the cognitive and developmental sciences. Our objectives are to improve the state of knowledge in and dialogue between education, biology, and the developmental and cognitive sciences; create and develop resources for scientists, practitioners, public policy makers, and the public; and create and identify useful information, research directions, and promising educational practices. The 2018 conference took place in Los Angeles, California.

The interviewee, Tanya Evans, was among the presenters at the conference.

Weekly newsletter