Building on prior knowledge: How does the student brain learn?

This piece is about the latest published paper of Dr. Marlieke van Kesteren, postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University. This research paper is now published in early access format on the website of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The experiment has been executed at the Donders Institute of the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands in the group of professor Guillén Fernández.

On a daily basis, we adjust and extend the enormous knowledge base in our brain. Our brain longs for a representation of reality that is as accurate as possible, so this image can be used to integrate new information easily. In our daily lives information is often presented in a way that is easy for us to digest. On television and the internet, and also in education.

It is very important in education that courses build on each other as much as possible, because knowledge builds from its antecedents. For example: If you cannot add and subtract numbers it will be very hard to multiply them, and if you cannot multiply then taking a square root will also be impossible. Of course this principle has been known for a very long time and it is often used in education. But what we do not know is how this knowledge is built so carefully in our brain and what this means for learning new material.

Different ways to store information

In my last experiment I have investigated this question: how does our brain remember new, study-related information? To examine this I tested two groups of sophomore university students studying biology or education. These students learned short sentences containing new information while their brain activity was measured with an MRI-scanner. These sentences contained information that either built on their own field of study (the primary field) or on the other field of study (the non-primary field). A biology student thus also learned information about education and vice versa. The next day the students received a test about the information they had learned so we knew exactly which sentences were remembered and which were forgotten.

What did I find in this experiment? Well, first of all, students better remembered information related to their own field of study; this is hardly unexpected, and confirms several previous studies. Secondly, we found that remembering information related to the primary field of study was selectively associated with activity a particular brain region: the medial prefrontal cortex.  This is not the first time our research has lead us to the medial prefrontal cortex; in total, our research suggests that this brain region acts to integrate new with old information. So when the students learn new information related to their primary field of study, that information will not be stored separately, but will be linked to information that was already remembered before. In turn this leads to better performance on the memory test.

Link with study performance

Additionally, we found that the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex correlated positively with how students performed in their sophomore year as compared to their freshmen year. More specifically, how actively they used this brain region during learning of our study-related sentences was predictive for their later academic performance.

Can we then predict future academic success by placing students in an MRI-scanner? No, the effects in this experiment are very small and the measurements very precise. Moreover, the relationship between brain activity and academic performance is merely a correlation. Therefore, we cannot tell the leading factor as long as there are a lot of different factors that can play a role. But this experiment does open new doors by illustrating that earlier findings – processing differences in the brain during remembering of simple pictures or words – also seem to apply to learning of more complex information in educational practice.


How can we then use these findings for learning in education? In the near future direct applications are not yet possible, but once we understand more about how our brain uses prior knowledge (the stuff we already know) to learn new information, we could tap into our prior knowledge better and more selectively before we learn new information. We could, for example, consciously make our learning more efficient by often questioning how something new relates to something old. Or we could use available prior knowledge to detect whether new information can already be learned or whether it is better to wait before trying to learn new things. The possibilities are endless!