Investigating the neural correlates of successful learning in a classroom environment: the association between course performance and electrophysiological data
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Despite the vast number of studies that have examined the relationship between human memory and learning, few have examined learning and memory in more realistically valid environments. The current study examines learning memory in a classroom environment, specifically with students enrolled in a medical anatomy course. In addition to behavioral data, this study also uses electroencephalography (EEG) to examine the neural correlates of successful learning in medical students. A total of 37 students over 2 years was recruited from the Boston University School of Medicine to participate in this study. In the study, medical students were tested on a set of anatomical terms that they learned in the anatomy course. Testing occurred in three sessions: prior to the start of the course, immediately after the completion of the course, and 5 months after the completion of the course. In the experiment itself, students were presented with 176 anatomical terms (132 terms learned in the course and 44 terms deemed outdated) and then given three response choices: whether they "Can Define", are "Familiar" with, or "Don't Know" the term. While testing, the subject's scalp EEG was recorded to measure the brain's neural activity in response to anatomical terms displayed on the computer screen. Resulting EEG waveforms were separated and then averaged based on the response type in order to analyze the difference in amplitude for three neural correlates across distinct scalp sites when the students could define, were familiar with, or did not know the term. Results showed a higher amplitude in ERP readings for "Can Define" and "Familiar" responses for the early frontal effect, which is correlated with memorial familiarity. A higher "Don't Know" ERP wave was observed for the late parietal effect, which reflects memorial recollection. Lastly, a larger ERP amplitude was detected for "Familiar" and "Don't Know" responses for the late frontal effect, which is associated with post memory retrieval processing. Both Pearson correlation and multiple linear regression analyses were then run to investigate if any significant relationship between ERP amplitude and grades existed, and if so, the degree to which these electrophysiological responses can predict the course grades received. Final results found that the early frontal effect for the Can Define responses over the Right Posterior Superior scalp region is the best predictor variable, among the ones tested in the study, for student performance in the medical anatomy course. This finding has the potential to determine whether the information learned in a classroom environment has in fact been incorporated into long-term or even semantic memory. Through the findings of this study, we hope to determine if this method of measuring learning through EEG can be used as a useful indicator of long-lasting learning in classroom environments.