Awarded Projects under Science of Learning Planning Grants

S/N Project Title Principal Investigator Host Institute Project Abstract
1 Sleeping your way to the top: Better learning outcomes through improving adolescent sleep and time management
Prof Michael Chee
Duke-NUS Medical School East Asian societies strongly embrace the value of hard study such that many children today grow up without experiencing a traditional childhood. The pursuit of academic success has resulted in the sacrifice of time for sleep, social interaction, and physical exercise, and an increased risk of anxiety and mood disorders.

The project team proposed a series of laboratory, quasi-laboratory, and field studies that will demonstrate the benefit of improving adolescent sleep with a view to maintain current high levels of academic performance while freeing time to pursue activities that will make for the development of more balanced individuals. In tandem with re-engineering time use, they will implement methods to increase learning efficiency by expanding capacity and intensity at individual study sessions. Learning from the failures of lifestyle modification in the field of obesity and using strategies from behavioural economics, the team seeks to change habits at an age where they are still modifiable using a mixture of proven and novel strategies that range from implementing sleep hygiene to cognitive enhancement. They realise that education by itself must be supplemented by minimally intrusive monitoring to enable the provision of customised, relevant feedback and reinforcement of desired behaviour changes.
An integrative mental skills training system for peak performance in learning for primary, secondary, and tertiary students
Prof John Wang Chee Keng
National Institute of Education
The acronyms PSLE, O-levels, and A-levels are familiar terms that could elicit highly stressed mental and emotional states for Singapore students. Besides these key examinations, the need to excel in various highly-staked assessments repeated over the growing years, while in part contributed to a high level of our educational standings worldwide, has created much stress and anxiety for students. This may also have indirect long-term effects on the well-being of the students. Indeed, there is a need to minimise the debilitating effects of stress and anxiety associated with learning and assessments among students such that Singapore can develop towards greater heights as a whole.

Elite athletes are known to have well-developed mental skills (e.g., mental rehearsals, goal-setting) for coping with training and competitive stress. Since mental skills training (MST) has worked for athletes, a potential solution for alleviating stress and anxiety among Singaporean students is to have them undergo similar MST too. However, the academic setting is different from sport, and research on the former is scant. Therefore, there is a need to undertake a detailed programme of investigation incorporating neuroscience, psychological sciences, education, and technology before a comprehensive and workable MST programme for students can be developed.

The project will collaborate with local and international researchers to review specific gaps in the literature and propose studies that will yield findings that can be subsequently used to formulate a comprehensive MST programme for Singaporean students. They aim to also eventually develop mobile phone apps and online platforms for the education process. The team envisions a future where students can be supported through a well-researched and systematic mental skill training program and auxiliary mobile apps/online platforms to be mentally tough.

3 Getting senior citizens to learn computer coding: An investigation grounded in motivational theories and neuroscience  Dr Kee Ying Hwa
National Institute of Education
Coding, broadly referring to writing computer programing codes, has receive worldwide attention, with numerous world leaders and global organisations promoting the cause of learning to code. While most initiatives target school students, the project team reasoned that teaching senior citizens to code can yield extraordinary positive effects on their mental functions and quality of life too. For example, elderly's logical reasoning functions could be sharpened and maintained through learning to code. Besides, coding can be an intrinsically motivating problem-solving activity akin to solving crossword puzzles or playing Mahjong. As the nation pursues the Smart Nation vision, it is equally important not to create digital divides between those who are currently in the educational system receiving quality coding lessons and those who are older and inept of coding. The team envisions a future where the elderly too are able to program their 'smart' devices for their own comfort. The senior citizens should not be left out as coding education becomes more prevalent.

Since research on elderly's learning of coding is scarce, the team proposes to examine the motivational and neuroscience aspects of elderly's learning of coding in Singapore. They will develop a proposal to include investigations of associated short-term and long-term changes in the brain using fMRI and EEG. At the end of the full project, they will present a gamified e-learning package for elderly to learn coding that is supported by motivational theories and neuroscience evidence.

The team envisions a future where more of our senior citizens can enjoy coding and benefit from it as a meaningful pastime activity for active ageing.

Driven to distraction:
The role of inhibitory abilities on academic performance
Assoc Prof Kerry Lee
National Institute of Education
Executive functioning refers to the processes we use to control our attention. In the proposed research, the team focuses on two aspects of executive functioning; updating and inhibition. Updating refers to our ability to hold information for short periods of time, which is determined by the space we have available and the efficiency with which we process information. Inhibition refers to the efficiency with which we can focus on the relevant features of the current task, and stop irrelevant information from distracting us from the task at hand.

In a recent review (Bull & Lee, 2014), the team found updating capacity, but not inhibitory abilities uniquely explained performance in mathematics tasks. Most people have experienced inability to stay on task on account of external distraction or intruding thoughts. It is thus surprising that inhibitory abilities do not have a more prominent role. The team argues that previous findings are affected by (A) The sensitivity of existing inhibitory measures; (B) The sub-domain of inhibitory abilities targeted in previous studies; and (C) The type of academic achievement measured in prior studies.

One limitation of existing methods is that they evaluate the effects of distractors on how quickly a task is performed, but does not evaluate the amount of distraction needed to result in task failure. A major challenge is to develop new inhibitory measures that provide a range of demands on different aspects of inhibitory abilities. A second challenge is to identify academic tasks that are more susceptible to differences in inhibitory abilities. 

Translating educational neuroscience in the schools: A multi-tier service delivery model that meets all children’s needs
Assoc Prof Chen Shen-Hsing Annabel
Nanyang Technological University In today’s diverse classrooms, teachers need to learn about many different aspects of educating children to help them learn and behave better. After teachers learn the knowledge, they gain skills so they can apply this knowledge in their classrooms. Teachers are taught many ideas when they go through their education degree programs, but they are not taught much about how the brain works. As a result, they are likely to apply their traditional knowledge and skills, but they do not have sufficient training or experience to consider this brain-based component of teaching and learning. Modern brain science research shows that what teachers do in classrooms affects how children’s brains develop, so teachers need to learn about this educational neuroscience research. Not only do they need to learn this new brain knowledge, but they also need to know how to apply it to their classroom instruction. This is what the study is about – helping teachers understand brain-based teaching to strengthen their teaching skills. The team calls this developing brain literacy. 

The project team will test out a brain literacy training programme for teachers using two schools. Teachers in one school will be taught about how the brains of children grow and develop, and how their classroom instruction changes student brains, while teachers in another school will be taught classroom behaviour management strategies. The team expects that brain literate teachers will be more confident about their teaching skills and that student achievement and behaviour will be better in the brain literacy school than in the behaviour management school. If their ideas are correct, this brain literacy approach could be expanded to more schools over time in a larger research project, leading to better teachers and improved learning to meet the diverse needs of children in Singaporean schools.
A neuroscientific research programme on diagnostic reasoning in medicine
Assoc Prof Naomi Low-Beer
Nanyang Technological University
The ability of doctors to identify the cause of medical illness is crucial to the safe practice of medicine. Flaws in reasoning, rather than lack of knowledge, cause most errors. To explain how doctors reason, Dual-Process Theory (DPT) proposes that when a doctor reasons, it can be fast and intuitive (System 1) or slow and deliberate (System 2). Although mistakes can occur with both types of reasoning, numerous behavioural studies have suggested that errors mainly occur if doctors use the fast and intuitive System 1 thinking, particularly when cases are complex or when under time pressure.

Recently, neuroscientific studies have tried to identify distinct brain regions associated with System 1 and System 2 thinking. Although these studies show potential, the preliminary findings may not be applicable to medicine as the studies involved lay people, and brain imaging was performed while they performed simple reasoning tasks that do not resemble the complexity of medical diagnosis.

To advance neuroscientific research in medical diagnostic reasoning, more authentic reasoning tasks are needed to show which areas of the brain are activated during System 1 and 2 thinking. The objective of this research project is to explore whether authentic medical cases can be devised and used for this purpose, and whether DPT in the context of medical diagnostic reasoning can be demonstrated in neuroscientific studies. This research will enhance understanding of the diagnostic reasoning process, how it can be impaired, and what methods of training that can improve it. The impact of this research could extend to decision-making involving allied health professionals and other professionals responsible for making complex high-risk decisions such as military personnel and airline pilots.
Caregiver interactions and perceptual learning in language acquisition  Dr Suzy Styles
Nanyang Technological University
The acquisition of linguistic skills underlies some of the most important human functions – from interpersonal communication, to language and literacy as pathways to educational attainment, and becoming competitive in a globalized, technologically complex, and ever-changing world. Yet there is still much to discover about the neural mechanisms of language learning, and how the functional properties of the learning brain can best be harnessed to enhance learning outcomes. The project team aims to unpack how the structure of linguistic information, and the context of linguistic interaction invoke learning in the underlying sensory system, to allow insights into the neural processes the learning brain. With a focus on early childhood learning, this program will: (A) Document properties of the early sensory system and its capacity for learning different kinds of sensory information; (B) Monitor and evaluate naturalistic interactions between infants and caregivers to uncover what works best for infants’ and children’s learning, both in the home, and structured contexts; (C) Conduct controlled investigations into whether these learning properties can be harnessed to improve learning outcomes in infancy, early years and school aged children; (D) Develop information and guidance for infant carers based on state-of-the-art neuroscience of infant language learning; and (E) Test whether interventions developed according to the principles of infant learning have utility for older language learners.

This programme of research has the capacity to bring a new perspective to the science of language learning, informed by the diverse, multilingual landscape of Singapore, where individual differences in household language environments can produce vastly different patterns of language exposure. This variability can provide a new lens on both the underlying plasticity of the learning brain, and how to best harness its potential.
Pedagogy and learning
Assoc Prof Tan Seng Chee
Nanyang Technological University  As a nation, we strive to teach our students to think critically, to question their preconceptions, and to find their own answers. We know that in the search for answers, insights are gained, new knowledge is formed, and progress is made. Yet, teachers and learning designers are often left to use phrases like “common sense,” “tradition,” and “because it works” when defending their classroom activities—answers that are generally unsatisfying to everyone concerned. The problem descends deeper than instructors being unable to justify educational practices. It extends to curriculum designers being unable to clarify the short-term outcomes of possible educational activities and the long-term foundations those activities build that can prepare students for future learning opportunities.

The strategic application of neuroscience explanations serves as one way to provide instructors and students justification for educational activities. Prior research shows that even simple neuroscience explanations can be effective at motivating students to continue with their studies and learn material more deeply. However, most educational activities, and the learning theories that inform them, currently lack the link to neuroscience explanations.

The project team will identify questions regarding learning theories and educational activities that lend themselves to supporting neuroscience explanations. It will also pilot small-scale activities and sample analyses designed to test the viability of current technologies and approaches. 
10  Enhancing learning and memory by optimising information presentation
Assoc Prof Trevor Penney
National University of Singapore Increasing the amount of time between study episodes and requiring learners to actively retrieve information during study (i.e., testing them) both improve long-term retention of the studied material, as compared to massed and passive study. However, there is an upper limit on the effective delay between study and test because memory decays with time. Hence, if the delay is too long, then the second exposure to the learning material will not provide the memory benefit of active retrieval because the memory won’t be accessible. On the other hand, if the delay between initial exposure and second exposure is too short, then the maximum potential benefit from stimulus spacing will not be obtained, thus learning will be sub-optimal at best. Hence, knowing when to present a specific piece of information is critical for learning efficiency. Otherwise, the delay between stimulus presentations may be too short or too long, both of which reduce learning efficiency.

The goal of this research project is to explore the extent to which behavioural (reaction time – RT) and electrophysiological (electroencephalography – EEG; Event Related Potentials - ERPs) data obtained while a student is engaged in a learning task can be used in real-time to increase learning efficiency and greater long-term information retention. Research conducted by the team's collaborator in Holland has shown that determining the learner’s memory decay function based on RT and accuracy measures permits the study material to be presented in a sequence that improves memory performance by 10 to 15 per cent. The team will determine whether/how well this stimulus sequence optimisation approach works for Singapore relevant learning materials. It will also determine whether EEG/ERP measures permit a more accurate and effective estimate of the memory decay function than merely using RT and accuracy measures with a concomitant increase in memory performance.
11 MOPPET: A multi-sensory ear training programme for children with cochlear implants  Assoc Prof Wang Ye
National University of Singapore Over 324,000 deaf people worldwide, including 25,000 children, use a type of hearing aid called a cochlear implant. These devices are effective at enabling deaf people to understand speech, but their effectiveness at recovering other auditory skills, such as music, has been less systematically investigated.

The project team proposes a system that uses both audio and visual elements to help people with cochlear implants better understand musical sounds. Its proposed system uses elements of two prior projects developed by the researchers. The first is a program called SECCIMA that is controlled by sound; children must sing or play different notes to use it, and they are thus led to perceive pitch and other aspects of the notes. The second system, called EyeMusic, uses a camera to see an image and then composes and plays a sequence of notes that represents that image. While it is traditional for cochlear implant training programs to focus on only one sense, such as hearing, increasing evidence suggests that programs focusing on two senses, such as hearing and vision, may be more effective.

To verify that the team's multi-sensory system  has the potential to outperform other works in this field, the team will make available their system to children using cochlear implants and their data will be analysed to assess perception of pitch and other musical features. They will also assess ease of use and determine whether students can use the proposed system on their own. This latter requirement will support scalability of future implementation of the technology.

12  How we learn languages: Studying the learning of languages by studying how dysphasic bilingual patients relearn to speak, read and write  A/Prof Erle Lim Chuen Hian   National University of Singapore  Stroke can cause dysphasia, i.e. the inability to speak, read, write or understand language. When patients have dysphasia from stroke etc, they often lose the language that they are less fluent in. They also relearn language at different rates and with different ability. We want to see if (1) Machine learning will be better at analysing functional MRI (fMRI) data in studying the learning of language; (2) Studying how dysphasic patients learn/relearn language can help us better understand how we learn a language.

In this pilot study, the project team will recruit 20 formerly bilingual patients with stroke causing dysphasia and 10 normal bilingual control subjects. Language skills in English and the mother tongue will be assessed using valid tests, at the start, and at two time points three months apart. During the study, subjects will be taught reading, writing and understanding of both languages by speech therapists. Subjects will undergo fMRI scanning at two time points, at entry to, and exit from, the study. fMRI data will be interpreted using traditional methods, and machine learning. 
13  Validation of Prediction Impairment in Autism (PIA) theory  Dr Hossein Nejati
Singapore University of Technology and Design Autism is a developmental disorder that engages almost all of the aspects of a person, from social interactions to even low-level sensory perception. Despite years of research on different aspects of the autism disorder, the underlying cause(s) are still unclear. With the alarming increase in the new cases worldwide and in Singapore, it seems necessary to obtain a better understanding of this disorder to help the affected population better integrate into the society.

The project team proposed a theory of autism as a disorder of prediction and believes that it can help explain several key aspects of the autism phenotype, including difficulties in language, social interactions and theory of mind. With the ability to predict being one of the key aspects in learning, they aim to validate their theory to set it as a basis for developing learning schemes in autism.

Their pilot study on 14 subjects showed promising results, supporting the theory. Their next step is to assess the prediction abilities of autistic subjects in interacting with static and dynamic objects through well-design experiments and with the help of computer vision and data analytics methods. The specific aims are: (1) To quantitatively characterize the ability to interact with dynamic objects in autism spectrum and control populations; and (2) To examine whether any observed differences between the two groups can be ascribed to a predictive impairment in autism.

The team proposes to conduct three sets of studies to address these aims: (1) Eye-movements during interactions with dynamic sequences; (2) Body movements during interactions with physical dynamic objects; and (3) Obstacle avoidance in a virtual dynamic setting. This validation can initiate interventions particularly on new learning protocols on the basis of prediction impairment, as well as diagnostic methods.


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