Press release

New research to investigate if neuroscience can improve teaching and learning in schools

Can physical fitness improve academic achievement? Would teenagers do better in their exams if they could sleep in and start school later? These questions will be part of a multi-million-pound research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), to investigate a variety of ways neuroscience might improve teaching and learning in the UK.

Thousands of pupils across England will take part in a series of randomised controlled trials after the Wellcome Trust and the EEF identified a need for more robust evidence about how neuroscience relates to learning in order to support teachers and schools keen to use the science. Six projects have been awarded grants, totalling almost £4 million. In addition to the total spent on grants, funding will also be provided to ensure the rigorous and independent evaluation of all of the projects.

Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust, said: “Our growing understanding of how the brain acquires and processes information has great potential to improve teaching and learning. We know that many teachers are keen to try new approaches based on neuroscience; however, we have so far lacked evidence about what will actually be beneficial to their students. We are delighted to be able to support an exciting range of projects that will test the benefits of educational approaches informed by neuroscience and help to build the evidence base on how to improve educational outcomes.”

Dr Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “We’re delighted to be researching these cutting-edge strategies based on the latest knowledge in neuroscience. Our mission at the EEF is to narrow the attainment gap between pupils eligible for free school meals and their more affluent peers. By funding large-scale controlled trials of these interventions and using independent evaluators to assess them we hope to develop a significant body of evidence that can be used by teachers and school leaders to improve attainment, especially for disadvantaged pupils.”

The six funded projects are:

  • Teensleep: Professor Russell Foster, Director of the Oxford University Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, and Professor Colin Espie, Professor of Sleep Medicine, will lead a trial of later school start times, along with a sleep education programme, to assess their impact on teenagers’ educational achievement. Some participants will wear non-invasive bio-telemetric devices to provide additional physiological data.
  • ​​Learning counterintuitive concepts: a study from Birkbeck, University of London, and the Institute of Education, led by Professor Denis Mareschal, aims to test the benefit of training pupils to suspend their pre-existing beliefs when solving mathematical or scientific questions, for example, correcting the seemingly logical notion that a heavy object will fall faster than a light one.
  • Fit to study: Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg from the University of Oxford will lead a study to look at the effect of medium to high cardiovascular activity on academic attainment, using brain imaging to investigate the correlation between them.
  • Spaced learning: a trial on the effectiveness of repetition and spaced learning, a method of teaching that delivers a unit of work three times interspersed with alternative activities. This will be led by Alastair Gittner from the Hallam Teaching School Alliance in partnership with Stocksbridge High School.
  • Engaging the brain’s reward system: Dr Paul Howard Jones will be leading a team from Bristol University and Manchester Metropolitan University on a project to examine the effect of uncertain reward on attainment. It is proposed that an element of chance in the anticipation of a reward is highly engaging and will help people learn – an interesting contrast to the traditional emphasis on consistency when using rewards and incentives in education.
  • GraphoGame Rime: Professor Usha Goswami, Director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, will lead a project that will look at how developing phonological awareness through ‘rhyme analogy’, using the GraphoGame Rime computer game, can affect how children learn to read.

The Education and Neuroscience scheme was launched in January 2014, to provide funding for collaborative projects between educators and neuroscientists to develop evidence-based interventions for use in the classroom, or to rigorously test existing tools and practices.