Research School Network: Cognitive Science in the Classroom Why Cognitive Science? Tom Needham explores the answer in this new blog


Cognitive Science in the Classroom

Why Cognitive Science? Tom Needham explores the answer in this new blog

by Greenshaw Research School
on the

Many influential educators-as well as government policy makers-promote and support the use of cognitive science based approaches in the classroom.

Recently, the EEF released a review of the evidence with a commitment to understanding how children learn.

As Professor Becky Francis explains:

One of the most important questions educational research can ask is how children learn. If we know how they process and retain information, we can adapt our approach to teaching accordingly and in turn, increase effectiveness.


[As with much evidence, the key message here is the importance of nuance. Principles from cognitive science are neither myths to be discounted, nor silver bullets that directly translate into accelerated progress.”


The report looks at applied cognitive science and focusses on research and studies that took place in classrooms. Because a lot of the evidence in support of cognitive science approaches focusses on laboratory studies, the EEF wanted to see if such approaches translated into the messy world of the classroom. The report attempts to understand how these approaches can be applied most effectively and whether there are any barriers or misconceptions that would weaken their effectiveness.

The report explains that: Cognitive science principles of learning can have a real impact on rates of learning in the classroom. There is value in teachers having working knowledge of cognitive science principles.”

However, it also points out that: The evidence for the application of cognitive science principles in everyday classroom conditions (applied cognitive science) is limited, with uncertainties and gaps about the applicability of specific principles across subjects and age ranges.”

This does not mean that the principles are ineffective or impossible to apply to everyday teaching: a lack of evidence is not the same as evidence that an approach is not successful. The evidence from laboratory studies is wide ranging and heavily suggests that these approaches can be considered best bets’ for teachers deciding what to do in order to improve learning.

7 Principles:

1. Spaced Learning

2. Interleaving

3. Retrieval Practice

4. Managing Cognitive Load

5. Working with Schemas

6. Multimedia Learning (including Dual Coding)

Embodied Learning

Teachers should not consider these seven areas in isolation as they all potentially interact: instead, teachers should consider the relationships between the principles. Applying these principles is much harder than simply knowing about them and teachers should be given time to implement, refine and evaluate them in their lessons. In order to implement these principles successfully, teachers will also need to consider the age of their learners, their learners’ prior knowledge, the nature of their subject and whatever learning outcomes they are aiming towards.

1. Spaced Learning


This is the idea that spacing learning over a long period of time will be more successful for later retention than massed or blocked practice

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At the beginning of an instructional sequence, it may be appropriate to ask students to engage in some massed practice so that they can acquire what is being taught and perform accurately. As a sequence progresses, spaced practice would be the optimal approach for building fluency and retention.

Spacing is effective regardless of what happens in between study sessions. It does, however, require an element of repetition to be effective. For example, if you were studying an anthology of poetry and you studied Poem 1 in session 1, then Poem 2 in session 2, this would not be spaced practice as there is no return to previously studied material.

Spaced practice is effective whether students are asked to restudy or engage in retrieval practice, although the latter approach is the most effective in terms of increasing retention.

2. Interleaving


Interleaving is the process of switching between different types of problems or different but connected ideas within the same lesson or study session.

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Interleaving requires students to switch between minimally different concepts; if the concepts are not minimally different, switching between them may not strictly be interleaving. For example, asking students to switch between fraction problems and geometry problems would not be interleaving.

The example above shows blocked practice and interleaved practice with fraction problems. In the blocked version, students answer four multiplication problems consecutively. In the interleaved version, students answer a multiplication problem followed by a division problem and then an addition problem, before returning to multiplication.

A proposed explanation for the benefit of interleaving is that switching between different problem types allows students to acquire the ability to choose the right method for solving different types of problems rather than learning only the method itself, and not when to apply it (Patel et al 2016).

Almost all interleaving studies focus on mathematics, although this does not mean that interleaving cannot be used in other subject areas.

3. Retrieval Practice

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The process of forgetting is inevitable and retrieval practice can help to slow it down. Compared to rereading or restudying, retrieval practice can result in better retention.


3. Managing Cognitive Load
4. Working With Schemas

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Many of the strategies derived from cognitive science focus on the crucial interactions between working memory and long-term memory and the important observation from cognitive science that our working memories have limited capacity.

Some strategies focus on the best ways of ensuring that the use of the working memory is optimised to focus on relevant learning content rather than distractions (managing cognitive load and multimedia learning). Other strategies are more focused on practicing the process of retrieving information from long-term memory (such as spaced learning, retrieval practice, and interleaving).

6. Multimedia Learning (including Dual Coding)

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Dual Coding Theory, first put forth by Allan Paivio in 1971, is based on the theory that working memory has two distinct components, one that deals with visual and spatial information and another that deals with auditory information. This suggests that we can take in things that we hear and read on one channel and things that we see on another, simultaneously. By presenting content in multiple formats, it is possible that teachers can appeal to both subsystems of the working memory, which subsequently strengthens learning.

There are three distinct uses of this theory:

  • Visual Representations or Illustrations
    These are dual coding icons’ where an image represents a concept or idea. While these can be helpful, they can sometimes be distracting. Additionally, it is often impossible to clearly represent a complex, abstract idea through a picture: try asking people to create an image for justice’ or power’ or other abstract concepts and you will find that people come up with a range of different choices.
  • Diagrams
    These are things like mind maps, concept maps or other similar visual representations of knowledge or a domain. They can either be used to support text, providing students with a visual support that organises the ideas within a text or they can be used as a generative learning approach when students are asked to create them as a learning task. While such diagrams can be really helpful, they need to be properly organised if they are to be effective. Additionally, despite acting as schema substitutes for novice learners, they may be detrimental to learning for more expert students as the additional information may be unnecessary or irrelevant. 
  • Spatial, Visualistion and Simulation Approaches
    These are approaches like asking students to imagine learning content or representations of it, often in order to simulate, manipulate or organise concepts or schemas across time or space. For this approach to be successful, students will need sufficient prior knowledge in order to create useful mental images. Although these approaches can be successful, in the absence of a behavioural response like writing or speaking, it can be difficult to check that students are manipulating the content in the intended fashion.


7. Embodied Learning


Embodied learning and physical factors refer to strategies that engage and make use of movement, gestures and the body to support effective learning. It is thought that by designing tasks and activities that appeal to pupils in a multisensory way, teachers may be able to make new information more easily comprehensible and memorable. Examples of embodied learning include movement around the classroom, for example, throwing beanbags to each other during counting tasks. Other examples are tracing, the use of gestures when teaching, and play-based learning approaches. While these approaches can be successful, teachers may need to consider whether the movements are a support or a distraction.

The seven principles should not be seen as a checklist and teachers will need to use their professional judgment in order to apply them effectively, making necessary adjustments and adaptations to suit their particular context.

Like everything in education, for these principles to be used effectively, teachers will need time to implement, refine and embed them properly into their practice.

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