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Research: Let Students Explore Before Cracking a Text

New research from Stanford University suggests that students learn better when they have an opportunity for hands-on exploration before reading text or watching video.

The study looked at 28 undergraduate and graduate students with no background in neuroscience as they progressed through an individual lesson. All students were given an initial test, then half read about neuroscience and vision while the other half used BrainExplorer, "a tabletop tool that simulates how the human brain processes visual images," according to information released by the school, and allows students to interact with the neural network by using an infrared pen to sever and reconfigure connections.

When tested again, students who had used the interactive tool scored 30 percent higher than their peers. Next, the groups switched activities and were tested again, "and the findings revealed a 25-percent increase in performance when open-ended exploration came before text study rather than after it," according to information released by Stanford.

"Our results suggest that students are better prepared to understand a theory after first exploring by themselves, and that tangible user interfaces are particularly well-suited for that purpose," said Bertrand Schneider, Stanford graduate student and project leader under Associate Professor of Education Paulo Bilkstein, in a prepared statement. Schneider also developed BrainExplorer as a final project for a course taught by Bilkstein.

The researchers also conducted a follow-up study replacing the text with video and encountered similar results.

"We are showing that exploration, inquiry, and problem solving are not just 'nice to have' things in classrooms," said Blikstein, in a prepared statement. "They are powerful learning mechanisms that increase performance by every measure we have."

"The BrainExplorer system is a proof-of-concept that may have applications in any field where teaching demands visualization and exploration of complex systems," according to information released by Stanford.

"Part of our goal," the researchers wrote in their paper, "is to create low-cost, easy-to-scale educational platforms based on open source, free software and off-the-shelf building blocks such as web cameras and infrared pens so that our system can be easily and cheaply deployed in classrooms."

The findings were published in IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies. The full paper is available for $19 at computer.org.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is the multimedia editor for Campus Technology and THE Journal. He can be reached at jbolkan@1105media.com.

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