This project aimed to enable pre-service teacher students to become active and peripheral participants in a community of practice in neuroscience research in education. It also aimed to increase critical and active engagement with the threshold concept of ‘understanding’ as a cognitive process.

  • Course: EDUC2716 Learning, Mind and Education, 2nd year educational psychology course
  • School/Faculty: School of Education, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • Delivery: weekly, two-hour face-to-face lecture and one-hour tutorial
  • Active learning approach: experiential learning, situated learning, peripheral participation in a community of practice, Wikis
  • Assessment tasks: weekly online learning logbooks, microteaching in groups, reflections of group work

Key issues and anticipated outcomes

This project aimed to address the following issues:

  • Students often have issues with key threshold concepts like ‘understanding ’and ‘learning’ within an educational context, as opposed to everyday use.
  • Further, ‘neuromyths’ about how the brain works, for example, need debunking, allowing for deeper insights into learning stemming from neuroscience.
  • Pre-service teacher students need to see themselves as peripheral participants in a community of practice of neuroscience research in education.
  • Such a community of practice is hosted at UQ, through the Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC) at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI). The SLRC focusses on neuroscience research in education, an area relevant for pre-service teachers.

Project innovation team

  • Dr Simone Smala – Course Coordinator & Project Innovation Lead
  • Heather Millhouse – Project Collaborator & Researcher

Active learning approach

The approach aimed to constructively align learning activities, concepts, skills and assessment.

  • Learning activity 1: lecture and tutorial questions on reading materials with a focus on neuroscience in education. This included an aligned focus on the SOLO taxonomy which utilises the threshold concept of ‘understanding’.
    • Aligned assessment: weekly online learning logbook reflecting on the SOLO taxonomy and on changed perceptions of the threshold concept of ‘understanding’.
  • Learning activity 2: guest lecture by Dr Marta Garrido, Group Leader, Computational Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI). A set of six Fact or Fiction questions were embedded within the lecture for students to discuss, with the aim to debunk ‘neuromyths’.
    • Aligned assessment: weekly online learning logbook, reflecting on the guest lecture and experience visiting the QBI.


The project was assessed via:

  • Student perspective: (i) qualitative online questionnaire, via the Blackboard online survey tool – gathering student feedback on active learning approaches embedded in the course; (ii) student interview, one participant responded to questions developed from a preliminary analysis of the survey data.
  • Thematic analysis from online questionnaire – the following figure (Diagram 1), is a Leximancer diagram of the relationships between the thematic terms most used by students in the qualitative questionnaire. The four most interrelated terms used in student responses were: ‘knowledge’; ‘learning’; ‘students’; ‘neuroscience’. Of note, is the merging of these key themes, including the introduction of ’neuroscience’ with flow-ons to the perception of their own future teaching practices, e.g. via links to themes including ‘teachers’, ’teaching’, ’classroom’, and ’practice’.

Diagram 1

Diagram 1: Relationship of terms most used by students in qualitative questionnaire


The detailed thematic analysis of the qualitative student survey found that effective learning approaches engaged students via:

  • A focused inclusion of brain research, cognition and neuroscience

The survey revealed that the majority of respondents expressed both positive and negative aspects about the incorporation of neuroscience into the course curriculum. 68% of respondents (19 students out of n=28) felt there were positive aspects. These included: it was interesting and/or important to learn; assisted their understanding re. learning; assisted their application of same to teaching, or facilitated metacognition processes.

Sample student quote – “I think it's really interesting to look at the scientific spectrum of education. It made me reflect on my own learning experience, it was quite fun when I was able to backup my behaviour with the information I was taught!"

61% of respondents (17 students) also expressed some aspects they disliked about incorporating neuroscience into the teaching practice; although the majority of these students also felt there were many positive aspects, as detailed above. Their concerns included: finding the content difficult or confusing, and feeling that it needed to link more to the rest of course/learning. A handful of students would have liked more hard-science in the neuroscience content provided.

  • Authentic/real world learning

Guest lecture at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), on “A Neuroscientist Perspective of Learning” including a set of six Fact or Fiction questions that were embedded within the lecture.

  • Experiencing the QBI

The majority of students expressed both positive and negative comments about their experience and impressions of the QBI lecture. 82% of the respondents considered the experience positive. They found at least part of the lecture interesting. The information was appreciated and they liked being in the building on excursion. 61% of respondents made a negative comment about the QBI lecture and most of these were about the relevance of the content to the rest of the course and to teaching. 28% of the respondents felt the content was too difficult for them to understand.

Sample student quote – “I actually really enjoyed the 'excursion' to the QBI. It was interesting and stimulated the idea of metacognition within the course. Would do to it again and would recommend its use in the course next year."

  • Collaborative learning – Wiki participation and use in group assessment

80% of students (23 students out of n=28) found some positive aspects about the Wiki as a learning activity, with 50% (14 students) expressing only fully positive aspects. Examples included that it was a good or great idea to assist collaboration with other students, and in some cases with tutors; that it was useful to view others' work to assist to interpret the topic, and it was a good modelling tool that assisted learning. A number of students also expressed that it will be a useful tool within their own teaching practice, as well as an appreciation for the SOLO taxonomy approach used to assist a deeper understanding of student learning outcomes.

  • Pre-service teacher students become peripheral participants in a community of practice dedicated to finding new insights about learning – including students encouraged to sign up to the Nature Partner Journals (NPJ) online community newsletter.

My personal observation as course coordinator indicates that a small assessment item linked to the signing up and perusing of this community newsletter would have improved student engagement with this aspect of the teaching innovation.

  • Lectures, tutorials and weekly Blackboard online logbooks

Sample student quote – ”As an exchange student who has taken many education classes back in the United States, I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of brain research, cognition and neuroscience in this education course. Most education classes I have taken fail to do this. Neuroscience is actually very relevant to educational studies and I think it is something very important to know for people studying to be teachers. From the times we looked at topics related to neuroscience in this course, I have learned things that have given me insight into a student's brain, which I find very valuable. It has taught me the science behind the learning process, which is important to know when thinking about how I can teach well to the class.”

  • Use of SOLO taxonomy which utilises the threshold concept of ‘understanding’

My personal observation as course coordinator indicates that the SOLO taxanomy was a well-liked tool amongst students. The table structure helped students understand the layers of ‘understanding’ as a process rather than a one-point outcome.

Project outcomes

  • Experiential learning on campus: on-campus excursions are well liked by students. They motivate students to attend lectures in unfamiliar and attractive spaces like the QBI.
  • Threshold concepts: focusing on a threshold concept such as ‘understanding’ enabled students to reflect on taken-for-granted meanings and develop more critical and theoretical explanations through the exposure to neuroscience research.
  • Community of learners: students felt they became active participants in a community of practice, assisted through participation in the online Wiki.

Other lessons

  • The peripheral participation aspect of being exposed to a community of practice in neuroscience and the science of learning through the NPJ Science of Learning website is more difficult to capture and define. Further projects could focus more directly on a weekly engagement with the website. Blackboard is potentially an underused tool. Options like the Wiki and the survey tool for data collection proved to be very useful in this project.
  • More collaboration between the QBI, SLRC and the School of Education and a tighter connection to teaching relevance could improve the student experience. As commented on by a student: “The Week 4 lecture, at the Queensland Brain Institute, the experience was fantastic but I felt it would have benefited from greater cooperation between the two faculties to ensure the content felt more relevant to our coursework. The content was mainly relevant to the work but parts felt too in-depth.”
  • While many students commented positively on working with others in the Wiki space, some felt this could have been structured more tightly, for example by requiring students to comment on each others’ posts regularly.

Transferability of findings

  • Plan excursions whenever possible – even on-campus excursions motivate students to attend lectures and provide settings for experiental learning;
  • Blackboard offers many tools that can be explored for active learning, like the Wiki, quizzes and surveys;
  • Peripheral participation in a community of practice, through active engagement in external online groups, website, newsletters can be explored to teach content more holistically;
  • Threshold concepts offer an opportunity to develop students’ critical thinking skills, by comparing ‘everyday’ meanings to more critical and theoretical explanations.

Further work

  • An academic journal manuscript (for national and international academic audiences) on teaching and learning threshold concepts and the active learning concept of peripheral participation;
  • Presentation in a teaching and learning forum for UQ academic peers (e.g. School of Education staff seminar);
  • Sharing of resources and documentation as a case study for academic peers within or external to UQ via this website.