An fMRI study exploring cognitive processing during computer-based discovery learning

Barney Dalgarno, Gregor Kennedy, Sue Bennett

    Research output: Book chapter/Published conference paperConference paperpeer-review

    38 Downloads (Pure)


    Discovery-based learning designs incorporating active exploration are common within computer-based instructional simulations, supported by constructivist theories of learning focussing on active individual knowledge construction. On the other hand, researchers have highlighted empirical evidence showing that â''pureâ'' discovery learning is of limited value and that combinations of explicit instruction and guided discovery learning are more effective. Little is known, however, about differences in the cognitive processing that occurs when a learner undertakes active discovery learning using a computer-based simulation compared to when they are guided through observation of simulation output. This paper reports on a study in which the brain activations from two learning conditions using computer-based simulations were compared using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). One condition allowed exploration through manipulation of simulation parameters, while the other allowed observation of simulation output from preset parameters. Drawing on constructivist theories of learning, it was hypothesised that the active exploration condition would lead to greater activation of brain areas associated with working memory organisation and long term memory formation. The study also set out to explore the broader feasibility of using fMRI to explore learnersâ'' cognitive processing while undertaking holistic learning activities using instructional software. Results of the study were somewhat equivocal about differences in brain activation with no consistent differences in activation between the two conditions able to be measured. Consistent with our related research which suggests that discovery learning strategies vary substantially across individuals, results of this study suggest that the cognitive processing during the two conditions varied across participants. Integrated analysis of the exploration processes, learning outcomes and measured brain activations of individuals shows promise in better understanding the relationship between learning strategy, interaction and cognition when using instructional simulations. The study also highlighted challenges associated with the use of fMRI to explore learners' cognition while undertaking learning activities allowing significant learner control and involving extensive computer-based interaction.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publication9th International Conference on Networked Learning
    EditorsC Sinclair
    Place of PublicationScotland
    PublisherUniversity of Edinburgh
    Number of pages9
    ISBN (Electronic)9781862203044
    Publication statusPublished - 2014
    EventInternational Conference on Networked Learning - Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
    Duration: 07 Apr 201409 Apr 2014


    ConferenceInternational Conference on Networked Learning
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


    Dive into the research topics of 'An fMRI study exploring cognitive processing during computer-based discovery learning'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this