Research School Network: Cognitive Science Approaches in the classroom: What does the evidence tell us and how might ideas be effectively applied in practice? Adam Pritchard, Local Research Lead, Norwich Research School

Cognitive Science Approaches in the classroom: What does the evidence tell us and how might ideas be effectively applied in practice?

Adam Pritchard, Local Research Lead, Norwich Research School

I recently attended an excellent Deep Dive’ run by the EEF focusing on Memory and the Science of Learning. The main focus of this session was to unpick the findings of the Evidence Review released by the EEF on Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom.’

This was an excellent reflective session and as someone with a keen interest in this area, I have subsequently been able to reflect on and attempt to refine my own practice in relation to the application of cognitive strategies in the classroom. I will outline some of my personal takeaways’ in greater detail below.

However; before I do this, I feel it’s really important to acknowledge the work of one of the contributors, the excellent Jade Pearce (@PearceMrs – Definitely worth following on twitter if you’re not already). As part of this deep dive’, Jade shared specific findings of the research which underpins the Cognitive Science Evidence Review by synthesising and disseminating the findings of individual papers. These precise links to the research have helped, not only in saving reading time, but more importantly to really understand how the research might be applied effectively in the classroom and precisely where the evidence base is either secure or limited.

Some takeaways:

1) Cognitive science principles can have a significant positive impact on rates of learning in the classroom’.

The theories from basic cognitive science imply principles for effective teaching and learning. Therefore teachers having working knowledge of principles such as spaced learning, dual coding and retrieval practice is clearly with merit. That said, the importance of context still remains paramount and as educators, we must factor in a number of considerations. The nature of our subject, the curriculum, prior knowledge and the desired learning outcomes (to name but a few) mean we must carefully select when and how to apply an approach in order for it to be successful.

2) The evidence for application of cognitive science principles in everyday classroom conditions is limited.

In places there is a lack of applied evidence for a particular approach. A lack of evidence is significantly different to evidence that the approach is not successful’. Also where there is a positive evidence base, this is almost exclusively in Maths. However; caution should be applied when concluding that an approach may be ineffective, because it has been found to be ineffective in the lab or in one classroom. As teachers, we have the expert knowledge of our subjects and we have the autonomy to decide how best to deliver our curriculums. With this in mind, perhaps we can make a choice as to whether we believe a principle can be effectively deployed in our own class.

3) Remember, this is an evidence review, it’s not an EEF guidance report.

Linking to the above point, the EEF guidance reports are an invaluable tool which can be used to support both teacher and whole school improvement. While, quite rightly, much has been made of the evidence outlined in this review linking to the potential impact of cognitive approaches in the classroom, it is important to remember that it is a review and not a guidance report. Therefore it should be used differently. Becoming evidence-informed means that in my opinion this review can be used to help develop a shared understanding of cognitive science approaches amongst colleagues, providing definitions of common terminology and key points for teachers to consider around specific strategies. As a head of department, I have welcomed the opportunity to do this with colleagues at a departmental level.

4) The theory and practice divide.

There is a really interesting section in the review which unpicks the difference between understanding cognitive science’ and using lessons from cognitive science to improve teaching and learning.’ These are quite different and it is clear that teachers must carefully consider how ideas can be used with success (as with point 2), while also having an awareness of factors which can impact cognitive techniques in the classroom. In short, high quality CPD around these strategies is really important, in order to secure in depth understanding of a pedagogical approach and ultimately avoid lethal mutations’ (Wiliam, 2011).

Finally, I have recently been using the excellent Walkthrus’ books by Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli to support my work with ECTs and trainee teachers. One of the things I really like about these books and I regularly advocate is not viewing these cognitive strategies in isolation. Ask the question how can I use these ideas help to support high-quality instructional teaching in my subject?’ Which other evidence informed approaches can I combine them with? For example, I regularly try to combine metacognitive talk and the asking process questions with live modelling with my A‑Level groups. In short, this Evidence Review should be used to combine practical elements of cognitive science research with the ingenuity of teaching in order to secure better learning experiences for our students.


EEF Evidence Review (July 2021) – Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom

Sherrington, T and Caviglioli , O. (2021). Teaching Walkthrus – Five Step Guides to Instructional Coaching. John Catt Education Ltd.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Solution Tree Press.

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