Brain scans measure students' learning better than exams — here's the proof

Brain scans prove better at testing students' ability than traditional exams
Rupendra Brahambhatt
A scientist explaining MRI scans of brain (in the center).
A scientist explaining MRI scans of brain (in the center).

Anna Shvets/Pexels 

  • Scientists propose that brain scans measure students' learning ability better than conventional exams.
  • Traditional grades and test scores do not evaluate 'far-transfer' - an advanced type of learning.
  • Although brain scans are not meant to replace exams in our education system, they can improve the system.

For hundreds of years, school and college exams have been used as practical tools to test students' learning abilities across the globe. Interestingly, a team of researchers from Georgetown University has now claimed that brain scans provide a more accurate measure of students’ learning than the conventional grade or marks-based systems.

The researchers centered their study around a unique curriculum taught in some public schools in Virginia, US. The curriculum is called the "Geospatial course," developed by James Madison University (JMU) in 2005. It focuses on spatial thinking, which can be defined as the mind’s ability to apply different skills, knowledge, and actions to understand the space and objects (and their properties such as dimensions, shape, location, etc.) present around a person.

While explaining the concept further, one of the authors and Neuroscience Ph.D. Candidate at Georgetown University, Robert Cortes told IE, “Spatial thinking is the power to mentally represent and manipulate different kinds of information in space, for example, searching a map to find a location or map a route.” While the school students learned the spatial thinking course, their learning abilities were analyzed using both brain scans and traditional tests, and the results were surprising!

Brain scans can help us improve our education system

Brain scans measure students' learning better than exams — here's the proof
Kids learning in a classroom.
Ksenia Chernaya/Pexels  

The researchers performed MRI scans of school students that learned the curriculum, and at the same time, they also conducted traditional pen-paper exams to test their knowledge. They found that brain scans better predicted how much students learned from the spatial thinking course than the exam scores. Moreover, the MRI scans also reveal details about “far transfer,” an advanced type of cognitive learning which allows a person to use his learned knowledge to solve problems that he was never taught to solve.

Test scores and grades do not say anything about far-learning of a student. However, these results do not imply that we should stop conducting traditional exams and just brain scan every student to test their learning. School and college exams are crucial for students' psychological and personal development.

Exams inculcate a sense of discipline, self-control, and healthy competition among students, plus they make them aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Instead of using brain scans to replace exams, we could use the former to find the courses that best improve students' learning ability. The data from brain scans can help us select and implement more effective study curriculums in our educational institutes.

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“We are not suggesting that we scan every kid's brain-that would be incredibly expensive, time-consuming, and frankly, it's not necessary for neuroscience to inform education. Rather, we can use neuroimaging to detect changes that come with learning a specific curriculum in real-world classrooms and then use these brain changes to compare different curricula to find the best method of teaching different subjects. The curricula can scale up, but the neuroimaging doesn’t have to,” said Cortes.

Spatial thinking also enhances human reasoning

Brain scans measure students' learning better than exams — here's the proof
Sketch of human brain parts and their cognitive functions.

In their study, the researchers highlight that psychologists and neuroscientists are still unsure if verbal reasoning and spatial thinking abilities complement each other. However, the results of their research clear this confusion. The brain scans revealed that as the students learned spatial thinking, they also experienced improved verbal reasoning.

According to the researchers, these findings also validate the Mental Model theory, which suggests that humans often use their knowledge of space and learning from related past experiences over logical reasoning to navigate complex settings. The approach supports the belief that human brains 'spatialize' verbal and written information the same. However, there are some limitations to the study as well.

Cortes told IE, “one of the main limitations is that, since the study was done in the real world (i.e. in a real high school class), we could not randomly assign students to take the class versus a control class. Instead, we used the closest possible approximation to random assignment--a quasi-experimental technique called propensity score matching.” This method reduces selection bias in real-world experiments where randomization of groups is impossible.

He further added, “essentially, we measured students from both the Geospatial and control groups on their overall "propensity" to enroll in the Geospatial course, and then used these measures to closely match each Geospatial student to a control student (taking a similar AP science class) who was equally likely to have taken the course based on baseline characteristics (e.g. gender, income, spatial ability, exposure to GIS mapping).”

The researchers are now aiming to replicate these results with a follow-up study while exploring new secrets related to learning and brain scans.

The complete study can be viewed in the journal Science Advances.


Current debate surrounds the promise of neuroscience for education, including whether learning-related neural changes can predict learning transfer better than traditional performance-based learning assessments. Longstanding debate in philosophy and psychology concerns the proposition that spatial processes underlie seemingly nonspatial/verbal reasoning (mental model theory). If so, education that fosters spatial cognition might improve verbal reasoning. Here, in a quasi-experimental design in real-world STEM classrooms, a curriculum devised to foster spatial cognition yielded transfer to improved verbal reasoning. Further indicating a spatial basis for verbal transfer, students’ spatial cognition gains predicted and mediated their reasoning improvement. Longitudinal fMRI detected learning-related changes in neural activity, connectivity, and representational similarity in spatial cognition–implicated regions. Neural changes predicted and mediated learning transfer. Ensemble modeling demonstrated better prediction of transfer from neural change than from traditional measures (tests and grades). Results support in-school “spatial education” and suggest that neural change can inform future development of transferable curricula.

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