Another Education Neuromyth Debunked

By Neuroskeptic | June 29, 2014 5:36 am

What does neuroscience have to say about the educational value of lectures?

Not much, says pedagogist Ken Masters in a lively article just published in Medical Teacher: Nipping an education myth in the bud: Poh’s brain activity during lectures

Masters lays into an emerging slice of neurononsense. The claim is that neuroscientists have shown that, during lectures, students brain activity flatlines – and is even lower than during sleep. There’s a superficially-plausible graph that purports to prove this. Here’s an expert – the ‘class’ section represents lectures:

brain_lectureAs Masters says:

The implications of this chart are immediately apparent: in a lecture, the student’s brain is less active than at most other times, including during sleep… this is damning evidence against the lecture as a method of education.

Although first published less than three years ago, this chart has already been cited on various internet sites and blogs, Twitter trends (#altc2012), education conferences and in education journals (Lancaster 2013). It has also recently been shown at the Association of Medical Education (AMEE) Conference in Prague in 2013.

With this grounding, it is surely only a matter of time before it becomes de facto evidence in medical education journal articles arguing against the use of lectures in medical education.

In fact, however, the chart has nothing to say about lectures, and wasn’t intended to. It appeared in a paper by Poh et al (2010), A wearable sensor for unobtrusive, long-term assessment of electrodermal activity. The data

were from a single device attached to a single volunteer student (N=1). The focus of the original research was not on lectures, or any other educational aspect, but was on testing a new mobile device (“a novel, unobtrusive, non-stigmatizing, wrist-worn integrated sensor”) to measure the device’s suitability and accuracy against an FDA-approved device.

While the results are valid for the purpose of the original research, applying them to any generalizability in medical education would be irresponsible. In clinical research, this would be the equivalent of accepting or rejecting a drug after a single trial with a single patient, with no further medical information and with no control group.

And the graphs don’t show brain activity at all:

According to the education researchers (Mazur 2012 time 2:39; Lancaster 2013; Neve et al. 2013; van der Vleuten 2013), brain waves or brain activity is being measured. Unfortunately, this is incorrect. Poh et al. were not measuring brain activity; they were measuring Electrodermal Activity (EDA). The purpose was the “measurement of EDA during physical, cognitive, as well as emotional stressors”.

[…] there is a wide range of possible causes of fluctuations, including fear, anger, sexual arousal or any number of stressors. Although these data would be interesting to examine in more detail, they do not indicate brain activity, and any inference about the student’s attentiveness or cognitive participation compared to other activities cannot be made.

As Masters says, the value of lectures is debated and there may be good reasons to think that they’re an ineffective form of teaching, but an n=1 study of skin conductance isn’t one of them. So this is an important little paper. It reminds me of one of my first ever posts, about educational neurononsense in schools.

ResearchBlogging.orgMasters, K. (2014). Nipping an education myth in the bud: Poh’s brain activity during lectures Medical Teacher, 1-4 DOI: 10.3109/0142159X.2014.916785

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  • Sanjog Sigdel

    Thank you for sharing…My class experience is proved right here :)

  • silver fox

    sorry neuro, fell asleep after the fourth word.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Good comment, thankzzzzzzz…

  • Pingback: Interesting read: Another Education Neuromyth Debunked (Neuroskeptic) | From experience to meaning...()

  • Pingback: Another Education Neuromyth Debunked()

  • Clin_Ton

    Yes, it explains many things. It has
    just reminded me about my problems with writing papers. We were explained the
    rules and main principles for many times in the classroom, but when I came back
    home, they only way to cope with the assignment was applying to uk essay writers
    . However, when I spend several hours at home trying to understand everything
    and also many other hoers training, it appeared that I can be quite good at
    writing. So, probably we have to concentrate on the right things and

  • chiefpapers

    The left brain/ right brain concept is also stated as a myth here

    “Other examples of neuromyths include such ideas as “we only use 10% of our brain”, “there are multiple intelligence’s”, “there are left- and right brain learners”, “there are critical periods for learning” and “certain types of food can influence brain functioning”
    This quote is from this:
    “Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence and Predictors of Misconceptions among Teachers”
    write a good research paper

  • Ashley Sanford

    The prevailing opinion, however, appears to be that the link between education and neuroscience has yet to realist its full potential, and whether through a third research discipline, or through the development of new neuroscience research paradigms and projects, the time is right to apply neuroscientific research findings to education in a practically meaningful way.
    write me a dissertation

  • JohnnyDepp

    This idea was once endorsed by the UK’s Department for Education 300-135 Pass-4sure, and by its inspection watchdog, Ofsted. But recent research has questioned the whole notion. For example, a review by researchers at Newcastle University in the UK found up to 71 learning styles had been described, mostly not backed by credible evidence.

  • Paul Thompson

    What you think to publish this article on BBC

  • Jane

    I really loved the article! I’ve always knew that lectures are boring and not effective. I would rather stay at home and read the materials by myself. In case I need suggestion I usually come here britishessays and people help me every time.

  • Tim

    Having considered bright graphics I understand how education is valued in society.Without education you are nothing.If there is a problem – solve it.If you don’t know how – call friends.
    I had trouble with writing the essay.After I found service the problem went away by itself.

  • richard

    A student always wants to eat and sleep. I believe – better give important tasks in the first half of the day, when the most productive brain activity. The company take orders around the clock.

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  • jyui

    Educational journey has to be very much in demand as well as promotional for the smoother operational task to do well in upcoming future. In order to find out the precise approaches in productive manner each stated way out is the ideal situation in setting the productive action plan in exploring the proper action plan.

  • jyuo

    Educational journey has to be very much in demand as well as promotional for the smoother operational task to do well in upcoming future. In order to find out the precise approaches in productive manner each stated way out is the ideal situation in setting the productive action plan in exploring the proper action plan.

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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