What can brain imaging reveal about the way teens learn?

Research by Columbia psychologist Daphna Shohamy, a principal investigator at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, reveals that teens learn in a different way than adults do. Shohamy and her colleagues demonstrated that teens are more successful at rewards-based learning than adults and show a greater ability to make connections between concepts and objects that are unrelated. These findings hold potential for adapting teaching methods and developing curricula tailored to the maturing teen brain.

Teens and adults in the study participated in a series of learning tasks in which correct answers were rewarded. Teens responded more strongly to the rewards, showing a greater affinity for what is called reinforcement learning. The teens were also better able to remember random, irrelevant pictures of objects that appeared during the learning tasks.

Simultaneous brain imaging showed that while completing the learning tasks, there was an uptick in activity in the teens’ hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory. There was no corresponding activity in this region of the adults’ brains.

“What we can take from these results isn’t that teens necessarily have better memory, in general, but rather the way in which they remember is different,” said Shohamy. Learn more.

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