Identifying factors that promote learning and personalized education

The education system in the United States favors a particular phenotype - the academic phenotype - that is, people who have a particular set of skills and behaviors. All people have the capacity to learn new concepts, but the current system works best for one particular group, allowing them to excel in school while others struggle. Dr. Terry Jernigan and the Center for Human Development are researching the emotional and motivational factors associated with learning in children as a pathway for adjusting and modifying the learning process towards personalized education. It is believed that if a child is emotionally stimulated by a subject, their motivation for learning is increased, making it easier for the child to acquire and store new information. Dr. Jernigan does basic research on brain and behavioral differences in children, but her findings can’t be put to use without translational research to implement her findings. By investigating the underlying factors that contribute to differences in individual learning abilities, educational technology tools can be designed and implemented to intervene in the educational system and help those students previously underserved with current methods. Dr. Jernigan will create new models for translational research in education by working with educators to develop effective tools for teachers that adapt to the individual needs of their students. This will lead to new techniques for manipulating the factors that enable people to learn quickly, guiding children to learn in different ways to achieve greater mastery so that we may ignite the spark of discovery in more children.

The Center for Human Development at the University of California, San Diego, directed by Terry Jernigan, is conducting studies looking at the differences among children as they pertain to brain development and maturing mental functions. The principal aim of this research is to understand why children differ in the pace at which they develop mentally, and why as adults we have different interests and skills. Dr. Jernigan is interested in understanding what factors underlie developmental trajectories, and if those initial factors indicate how a student's interests will develop as they grow. Most of the previous research on this issue has focused on the basic cognitive functions of children, and how these functions become more mature as children learn. However, since learning is always a personal experience, it is well established that we learn best doing things that we are naturally interested in and motivated to do. Based on this understanding, Dr. Jernigan conducts studies that consider the role of emotional engagement before, during, and after a task, as it relates to learning that task. She is questioning why children differ in their emotional responses to different kinds of learning; why do some children prefer reading while other students love solving arithmetic problems. Arguably one of the greatest challenges facing the education system today is not so much how to educate some children well, as there are stellar examples of the success of our current system, but is rather how to educate more children well. A deeper understanding of the differences among children in their cognitive and emotional responses is critical to personalizing and improving education. A key aspect of Dr. Jernigan’s research in the open source nature of her educational software, which exposes her research and tools to educators nationally.

Dr. Jernigan's current research projects explore the factors that influence learning in children to look for ways by which to improve the learning process and the education system:

  • The Pediatric Longitudinal Imaging of Neurocognition and Genetics project (PLING), is a multilab, coordinated effort looking at 600 students between the ages of three and 21 years old to compile a large database of behavioral measures that are related to brain and cognitive behavior. These measures include a battery of standardized tests typically suggested by NIH, including inhibition control (how well a child can inhibit a response after being instructed not to respond to an impulse), breadth of vocabulary, language measures (how fluently a child produces words), spatial ability (how well a child can recognize and reproduce patterns), and some academic mathematical tasks, among others. A child's brain development is measured by both structural and functional imaging using MRI, combined with genetic analysis, to identify relationships between task performance and these factors. The subjects of this experiment are tested, and thus the data is being constantly analyzed, over a period of time to track developments and changes.

  • Role of Emotion and Choice in Learning (REACH) is trying to reveal how emotional and motivational components affect how people learn. Dr. Jernigan is looking at young children between five and six to see if their initial preference in reading versus mathematics is an indication of how they will develop throughout their school career. Basic preferences are measured to see if they persist over time and to determine what role they plan as the child’s skills develop. Dr. Jernigan and her team have developed a novel screen task, divided into six sub-tasks that range in subject areas. There are more reading-like tasks, such as reading words on a screen or distinguishing between different syllables in words, purely auditory tasks, such as listening to 10 sounds in a sequence and identifying differences in the patterns. Other tasks include looking at an object on a screen and clicking on the same position on the screen after the original object has been masked, and on the other end of the spectrum mathematical tasks, which range from solving basic arithmetic problems to looking at a random collection of dots in two fields and rapidly determining which group contains more dots. Initial responses are recorded in order to establish a threshold for responses, and then the children are presented with pairs of tasks to choose from. Dr. Jernigan reworks these tasks before the second iteration to equate difficulty between task types so that interest is isolated as the main motivation of choice, rather than the difficulty of a particular task. The children's responses, together with surveys, establish a measure that is tracked over a few years to understand the trajectory of interest and learning and determine if a child's initial responses (at age five or six) are predictive of their eventual academic interests. Essentially, is a child's choice of mathematics problems early on predictive of them pursuing mathematics more seriously once they are older? The end goal of this project is to develop interventions to modify motivation in areas a child is not initially interested in, and thus would likely avoid. Gathering the basic underlying data is the initial step in leading to corrective measures.

  • Dr. Jernigan's Symphony project is capitalizing on the running of free after school music classes in low-income schools throughout San Diego and Chula Vista to determine whether music training has an impact on learning over and above other additional extracurricular activities. There is great public interest in music's role in encouraging learning, with many believing that music is helpful in mathematics and language learning, but current evidence isn't particularly clear in identifying a correlation. One group of students is involved in these after school music classes, while a control group attends martial arts classes. Students from both groups are studied using MRI and similar cognitive tests as the PLING projects to determine music's role in promoting learning.


Dr. Jernigan trained as a clinical and experimental neuropsychologist, and since the late 1970’s has studied the human brain using imaging. This work has focused on brain development and aging, neurodevelopmental disorders, neuropsychiatric and substance use disorders, and neurodegenerative disorders. Since 2008 her central research interest has been the developing human mind and brain, and she has pursued this interest in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team as Director of the Center for Human Development. She also directs the Coordinating Center for the PING Project – a publicly shared imaging genomics data resource with imaging, neurocognition, and whole genome genotyping data from over 1500 children aged three to 20 years. She is a member of the National Advisory Board on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health Council of Councils and serves on the scientific advisory boards of several research organizations in the US and Europe.


The Huttenlocher Lecture, 2014

"Awarded each year to an outstanding researcher in the field of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience” at the International Congress for Integrative Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (Flux)"

Recipient of Astor Visiting Lectureship, Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University, UK, 2013

Invited “Distinguished Scientist” Lecturer, University of Pittsburgh, Department of Psychiatry, Fall 2013

Chancellor’s Award for Contributions to Affirmative Action in Assisting in Diversifying the Career Staff Workforce at UCSD