Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow, LEAP Fellow

Dietsje Jolles

Leiden University

Dietsje Jolles is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Education and Child Studies at Leiden University, The Netherlands. She has a background in developmental cognitive neuroscience, with a specific expertise in learning and cognitive skill acquisition. In her current research, Dietsje employs an interdisciplinary approach to study the complex interplay between learning and (neuro)cognitive development, integrating insights from cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and the educational sciences. Her research can be summarised in two main themes: (1) training and transfer of foundational cognitive abilities, including working memory, numerical abilities, and spatial cognition, and (2) developmental and individual differences in learning and academic performance, with a specific focus on children’s cognitive control abilities and learning strategies. She studies these topics from different angles and using different research methodologies, including behavioural experiments, intervention studies, and neuroimaging techniques.

Dietsje received her PhD in developmental cognitive neuroscience from Leiden University in 2011, after which she spent 2,5 years as a postdoc at Stanford University. In 2014, she started as Assistant Professor Educational Sciences at Leiden University, and from summer 2017 to spring 2019 she was a visiting research associate at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).

Research Focus
Dietsje Jolles is a developmental cognitive neuroscientist studying cognitive and academic skill acquisition across development. The central theme in her work involves the dynamic interplay between brain maturation and behavioral change. She is particularly interested in the extent to which learning, and plasticity depend on brain development, individual differences in cognition, and prior experience. By creating a better understanding of the underlying cognitive and neural mechanisms that support learning across development and in different individuals, the ultimate goal of her research is to inform educational programs that ameliorate children’s weaknesses and strengthen their talents.

My plans for the fellowship period
An alarming number of young adolescents fail in school for reasons not related to their intellectual capacities or their eagerness to learn. This discrepancy between students’ school achievement and their learning potential suggests that the educational approach in early adolescence does not provide a good enough fit with students’ learning abilities. In addition, there are vast individual differences among students. Without a better understanding of the nature of these differences, it is difficult to adapt instruction to the individual student’s needs. The current research aims to critically advance our knowledge of the cognitive and brain mechanisms that drive developmental and individual differences in learning. Key is the comparison between different instructional methods, i.e., learning by instruction versus experience-based learning, which will be assessed at multiple levels of explanation. The first project involves a large-scale classroom-based study in young adolescents to examine individual differences in learning. Next, we will examine the brain mechanisms that are responsible for learning by instruction versus experience-based learning, focusing specifically on possible differences in learning mechanisms between adolescents and adults. Finally, leveraging on insights provided by the first two studies, we will develop and test the effects of an educational intervention to improve self-regulation during learning.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
Early adolescence is an important transition phase. Knowledge and skills acquired during this period set the stage for an individual’s future academic and professional career. However, during this period students are not always challenged in a way that maximizes their learning potential. Unfortunately, once a student falls behind–regardless of whether this is caused by cognitive immaturity, lack of parental support, or other factors–it becomes harder and harder to catch up. In order to support those students who lag behind, and to design developmentally appropriate instruction for all, it is crucial to gain a better understanding of how young adolescents learn, and how teaching can best address their learning potential. The current research connects long-standing issues from the field of instructional design with novel insights from fundamental brain research, examining learning and teaching as opposite sides of the same coin. Such a multidimensional approach is a prerequisite for translating findings from fundamental cognitive and brain research to applied settings. Eventually this type of research will enable us to design an educational environment that better supports the way adolescents learn and aids them in the development of their talents.