07. Learning

Study Discovers New Learning Abilities in Children

May 2, 2018

A study just published reveals that cognitive training can successfully boost attention in students with learning difficulties.

The Challenges of Attention in Learning

Whether it's driving a car or making a game-winning pass in the NFL, attention is a critical skill in all domains of human performance.  For students, it's probably more important than for anyone - the ability to pay attention is known to be one of the best predictors of academic achievement. However, attentional capacities vary from one student to another, and these differences are huge for children learning difficulties. In fact, learning related conditions, such as ADD, ADHD, and Autism, are typically characterized by major problems in attention.

With the rise in diagnosis of such conditions in recent decades, there is a widely recognized need to improve attention capacities in the classroom. Most interventions researched to date have only focused on training working memory, instead of training attention directly.  They have also tended to lack an ability to adapt training tasks to the user's level of ability, leaving students with learning difficulties easily overwhelmed.

Breaking New Ground

To take on these challenges, a group of neuropsychological scientists conducted an ambitious large-scale study with NeuroTracker with children known to have learning difficulties.  The goal was to see if this form of adaptable cognitive training, could directly improve attention in children.  This was the first study of it's kind to look at cognitive training in a way that assessed intervention accuracy, adaptability, and accessibility.

What Was Studied

129 students aged 6–18 years old took part in the study across 3 different schools.  For the first phase of the research, the students were tasked with completing the Conners Continuous Performance Task (CPT-3). The CPT-3 is an industry standardised neuropsychological test shown to provide an accurate baseline measure of attention in children. The researchers also chose this assessment because it is a stable retest measure of attention, meaning that if scores improve, it is because attention capacity has improved.

The students were then randomly assigned to one of three groups.

1. A NeuroTracker intervention group.  These students had an initial assessment to check if they could understand the task, and then performed 15 sessions of NeuroTracker spread out over a 5 week period.

2. An active control group.  These students performed a visual strategy math-based game (called 2048) over the same 5 weeks.

3. A passive control group. These students simply carried out their normal daily school activities over the same 5 weeks.

Then after the 5 weeks training period, all of the children retook the CPT-3 test.

What Was Found

The NeuroTracker group started out with lower scores than would be expected for those without learning difficulties. However they responded well to the training over time, achieving a strong learning curve with over 60% improvement in NeuroTracker performance.  These gains occurred across approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes of total training time (over the 5 weeks).  In comparison, students in the active control group experienced minimal learning in the strategy math-based game, which was not an adaptive task.

The most important results were whether or not students improved their attention scores on the CPT-3 retests.  These revealed that post-training CPT-3 performance improved significantly from pre-training baselines, but only for participants in the NeuroTracker group.  The CPT-3 scores for the other groups remained almost the same.

This evidence shows that NeuroTracker training specifically increased the attention abilities of students with different levels of learning difficulties.

Insights for Improving Learning Outcomes

The NeuroTracker multiple object tracking task is established in the scientific literature to be a direct indication of a person's attention resource capacity.  It is also known to be an ecological measure of real-world attention abilities.  The fact that children with learning difficulties responded so well to NeuroTracker training is a very promising indicator for improving classroom performance. The researchers also noted that the simplicity of this non-verbal task, combined with the ability to perform training in bite-size chunks (6 minutes), made NeuroTracker a highly accessible intervention for this population.  The motivation associated with performing an adaptive task was also seen to be a major advantage, perhaps explaining the surprising 100% completion rate for those who took part in the study.

Domenico Tullo, a doctoral student, and member of the Perceptual Neuroscience Laboratory for Autism and Development (PNLab) led much of the hands-on research. Based on his insights at the schools involved he commented,

“NeuroTracker is a great task for really tapping into the direct mechanisms of attention that we see in the everyday classroom or everyday life.  We’re able to see how repeated practice can improve attention and learning. In the classroom, the teachers are really seeing differences in how students are more focused, more calm, more receptive to learning. It shows how powerful NeuroTracker is, and what it can do.”

The fact these gains were achieved in less than two hours of distributed NeuroTracker training, demonstrates just how useful attention-based cognitive interventions can be.  Dr. Bertone, one of the study researchers and Associate Professor in Applied Child Psychology at McGill University, underlined the importance of this type of training transfer.

“For the NeuroTracker groups…we saw an improvement in attention of between 6-10%.  This is significant.  This is bang for buck…it’s been incredibly uplifting to see just 20 minutes a week, and we’re getting some really, really positive results. We’re working with kids across a spectrum of conditions, so Autism, ADHD, kids with language difficulties…and we’re seeing improvements across the board. The ultimate goal is to help kids learn, and feel good about themselves.”

Dr. Bertone and Domenico Tullo kindly gave interviews on their research, discussing some of the aims and findings of the study, along with some of anecdotes of what it was like from the perspective of the children and teachers involved.

This landmark study opens up new possibilities for improving educational outcomes for students with learning difficulties and is being followed up with other studies by the same research team.

If you're keen to learn more on this topic, read our related Expert Corner blogs here.

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