: Applying the principles of cognitive science to the classroom Using principles of cognitive science to develop effective note taking


Applying the principles of cognitive science to the classroom

Using principles of cognitive science to develop effective note taking

Marie Brogan is a Citizenship and PHSCE teacher, as well as Team Leader for Citizenship and PHSCE.

David Mullen is a History teacher, as well as an AHT and Associate Director of the North London Alliance Research School

Following professional development sessions on instruction, adaptive teaching and retrieval, the Citizenship department wanted to introduce a standardised note taking approach to how students record information during lessons to support their long-term retention of knowledge.

According to Robert Marzano (What works in the classroom, 2020), effective note taking involves the learner summarising information being shared by deleting and substituting the information in order to create their own meaning. Marzano (ibid) then goes on to argue that teachers should encourage and give time for review and revision of notes; notes can be the best study guides for tests.’ The Cornell method is one classroom strategy that allows for this, both in the notes section and the summary section. Both the Cornell Method and EEF research emphasise the value of regular review and retrieval practice in consolidating learning.

There were a number of additional drivers behind this;

Retrieval Practice

We wanted students to be able to retrieve information from their books when they needed it.

The EEF defines retrieval practice as the process of recalling information with very little or minimal prompting.’(Cognitive Science Aproaches in the Classroom Report, EEF)
According to the guidance there are lots of different ways that we can do retrieval practice. We know that the evidence around retrieval practice is strong.

There are many different classroom strategies that support this and one strategy is the Cornell Method. We know that retrieval can take many forms and the Cornell Method strategy is one of these.

A study by Roediger and Karpicke (2006) has shown that students themselves don’t predict the benefits of retrieval practice. They feel as though re-reading has a far more positive effect, when it doesn’t.

Graph 2

Students asking and recording questions

At the end of the lesson, students are encouraged to record questions that are linked to the content of the the subject matter in the left-hand column of their exercise books. Writing questions is an important part of this strategy, as it encourages students to really consider the information in their notes. We have observed that students have felt much more empowered to assess their own progress and for them to identify their next steps independently. We had to make sure that we modelled to students how to write effective and appropriately challenging recall questions.

Recommendation 2 of the EEF’s Metacognition and Self- Regulation guidance report
here recommends that we should Explicitly teach pupils metacognitive strategies, including how to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning.’ As students engage with the question generation step it is likely that important metacognitive processes begin to take place.

Additionally, the structured format of the Cornell Method aligns with the EEF’s findings on the importance of metacognition and self-regulation in learning in other ways. The 2018 EEF report on this advised us that self-regulated learners are aware of their strengths and weakness, and can motivate themselves to engage in, and improve, their learning’ By encouraging students to reflect on their learning process and synthesize information into concise summaries, the Cornell Method has the potential to promote deeper understanding and long-term retention of information alongside supporting students to develop self-regulation.

Reviewing notes

In our lessons, the teacher asked students a question from a previous lesson, gave thinking time and then directed students to find the answer to their question in their books if they were struggling to encourage students to review their notes.

Students could do this quickly. Students found this useful when preparing for essay assessments as the case studies students had looked at in class were not only clearly indicated but instead of description of case studies the cue question (Step 2) provided opportunities for student analysis and evaluation points. We also wanted students to be able to find key words more easily by writing them consistently in the same place on the page.

When this has worked we have been able to ask students to find definitions quickly and then ask them how the definition links to current learning, leading to more connections being made between topics. This has been one of the things that students have found the trickiest to remember.

Asking students questions encourages them to bring the information to the forefront of their minds. This act of bringing information to the fore helps build memory and is in fact one of the strongest things in embedding information into long-term memory.

We wanted students to feel supported with recording information during lessons. The EEF’s Cognitive Science evidence review here
suggests a range of practices that support students in managing their cognitive load such as:

providing scaffolding’ and other forms of support such as prompts and cues, or targeted instructions to help learners navigate the working memory demands of tasks..’

By writing the question and then adding notes the cognitive load was reduced for students. The emphasis was on the thinking rather than how the thinking would be presented.

Students were also more willing to add to their answers. During student voice activities feedback from students mentioned they felt confident in how they presented work and understood the purpose behind this in order to support retention of knowledge and empower them to identify knowledge gaps . They understood the expectations of the teacher for each task involving responding to questions. We have also noticed that students were able to categorise their answers more quickly and developed their own note taking methods.

Key actions and next steps:

Our next actions will be;

  • To continue to develop student’s ability to more effectively write summaries of their learning. This will be through modelling and metacognitive questions using a stimulus. Some students were more confident than others when writing retrieval questions and more modelling of this will support the strategy. We hope that students’ summaries of their learning will respond more directly to the questions they had written in their books. We will use visualizers with our new GCSE classes at the start of term to model this to them using the I do, we do, you do
  • We are investing in exercise books that use a clearer Cornell template that labels the page. This is to support with students remembering to use the method. Students work in many different ways across subjects and we noticed that some students were inconsistent with this method.
  • We will gather student voice from SEND students to better understand how they experience Cornell notes. If we discover any barriers that these students face we will reflect on how we can adapt to be inclusive.

  • As a department we are also embedding philosophy for children into our curriculum. We are going to explore if this method that promotes Oracy and question generation will also support with helping students generate their own retrieval questions and record questions for further inquiry.
Example of student recording ideas through self-generated diagram and then writing their cue question.
In this example a student has used the notes section to categorise points from a group discussion on press freedom and the Leveson enquiry. The summary demonstrates good use of key language and a clear understanding of the case study. The summary also indicates that students may need more support with creating questions that address concepts as well as facts. This would have led to a greater explanation of the ideas of public interest and press freedom.
Student reflecting on cue question after class discussion. The diagram was student generated to summarise their own thinking.
Student work from Year 9 engaging with an A- Level concept. By removing some of the cognitive load student energy can be redirected to engage with bigger concepts.
Students categorising their notes when asked if they could identify any connections.


Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom, EEF, July 2021

How Do Students Use Self-Testing Across Multiple Study Sessions When Preparing for a High-Stakes Exam? Dunlosky et al (2013)

Cognitive Science Evidence Review, EEF

What Works in the Classroom, Marzano, 2020

Metacognition and Self- Regulated Learning Guidance Report, EEF.

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