Using cognitive science to improve classroom practice

Written by: Dr Kelly Woodford-Richens | Published:
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What is cognitive science and cognitive load theory? Do you need to use it when you teach? Exactly how do you use it when you teach? Dr Kelly Woodford-Richens offers a practical overview of cognitive science in practice


Cognitive science is becoming the cornerstone for understanding how students learn and is revolutionising the way we are teaching pupils, both in primary and secondary.

It has also underpinned the development of the new Ofsted frameworks for schools, initial teacher training providers and, from this September, the Early Career Framework. And rightly so: the techniques informed by cognitive science are evidence-based and proven.

Some schools are just kick-starting their incorporation of cognitive load theory (Sweller, 1988) into their teaching and learning visions, whereas other schools have embedded the principles fully.

So, here are some key questions to consider: What is cognitive science and cognitive load theory? Do you need to use it when you teach? Exactly how do you use it when you teach?

The beauty of cognitive load theory is that there is a wealth of research evidence showing why we should be using the techniques informed by them. Indeed, Professor Dylan Wiliam famously tweeted in 2017 that “Sweller’s cognitive load theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know”. Here I want to look at some of the techniques we should be implementing in every classroom in order to take this into account.


Cognitive science

So, cognitive science is understanding how the structure and functions of the brain affect our ability to learn. It is a branch of science that considers brain architecture when thinking about how to embed learning into the minds of our students. To this end, human cognition can be broadly divided into our working memory (also called short-term memory) and our long-term memory.

Working memory is when you are receiving new information and it has limits. Do you remember Kim’s Game from when you were a child? You were presented with a tray of objects, given 30 seconds to memorise as many as you could before the tray was covered. Or The Generation Game, a TV gameshow where the final task was remembering objects on a conveyor belt.

Well, the capacity of the working memory is roughly five to seven objects from that tray or conveyer belt, many more can be a struggle.

But what about long-term memory? Well, can you recite the words from your favourite pop song from when you were young? It can be strange when you get older and haven’t heard a song for 20 years but find yourself singing along. How are you able to recall something you have not thought about for so long?

The answer is this: “Memory is the residue of thought.” This is my favourite line from Daniel T Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009).

That song you practised and heard many times over got embedded into your long-term memory. Teaching happens in time; learning happens over time. Which brings us to the next really important point…


Your long-term memory is infinite

If we think about things many times and activate the neurons in our brain to retrieve the information, then we can store an untold amount of information. I love this fact because it proves that, while there will still be some differences, all of us are indeed able to take on new knowledge and learn new things, if only we practise. What a great thing to be able to stand in front of your students and say.

So what strategies should you use? You have probably heard of the Principles of Instruction (Rosenshine, 2012). The first principle is that you should start with a short review of previous learning. This has taken on the name retrieval practice, alongside interleaving and spaced practice.

Retrieval practice is low-stakes assessment of prior learning. Interleaving is where you include learning from a variety of topics, and spaced practice is where you allow students “forgetting time” (say two weeks) before coming back to the topic and asking some similar questions. Retrieval practice should happen every lesson. The biggest resistance you will get is teachers worrying about how they cover their curriculum if lesson time is given over to these reviews.


Let’s justify that

Think back to when you first started learning to drive. That moment when you sat in the car and the instructor started explaining the functions of the pedals, switches and levers. Now you can probably happily sing, chat and plan your day while driving because all the practice you did has shifted the learning to the long-term memory.

Now consider when you first drove abroad for the first time: there would have been a short interlude where you were again cognitively overloaded but because of your foundational driving knowledge, you were able to acquire the new skills very quickly.

The point is this: new knowledge can be easily added to strong foundational knowledge that has been practised many times, so we should actively encourage teachers to keep revisiting that foundational knowledge in order for students to assimilate new knowledge. The students’ increased confidence means you can still get full coverage of the curriculum.

Cognitive scientists will call this building schema: the more we have practised recalling knowledge and ensuring it is embedded, the more we can add further knowledge, then create links between those firm banks of information which in turn allows you to add yet more knowledge.

This is why there may be an educational gap that gets harder to close as students get older. Those students with parents who invest time in using a large vocabulary, counting when their child climbs stairs, reading to them every night and so on often create strong foundational knowledge for formal schooling to build on.

There is likely to be a gap with the children who did not, unfortunately, receive this rich start in life. These children may find schooling extremely difficult and often feel too far out of their comfort zones right into their panic zones, and so they disengage from school.

This is essentially because they didn’t get all the practising opportunities afforded to their peers, meaning new knowledge did not have the foundations required in order to build schema.


But there is hope

With our understanding of long-term memory, you can just practise, practise, practise with your students and prove to them the infinite capacity of the mind.

Retrieval practice can be a low-tech, quick-fire set of questions, it can be a brain dump of write everything you know about…”, or it can be “write a question for something you want to know about each of these previous five topics”.

The internet is full of templates you can use but my advice is to keep it simple. Writing questions that you know your class have struggled with and need to go over is the best personalised approach for your students.

It is only worthwhile doing retrieval practice if you know which questions students are getting right or wrong. As you go through each question, tell the students it doesn’t matter if they got it wrong as you are just going to reteach and revisit until they can remember and then get them to raise their hands.

Do this for each question and scan the room. If they are all getting the same question wrong, teach them the answer and put the question in again tomorrow or the next lesson. If the majority are getting it right, leave it out for a few weeks and then reintroduce it.

For those that got it wrong, go and have a quick word once the rest of the students are doing an independent task. If it is an unequal split, keep the question in until the majority are getting it right.


Dual-coding

Another fabulous teaching technique that takes account of cognitive load theory is dual-coding.

Although there are no such things as learning styles, there are certainly different ways our brain can receive information, for example through the visual stream or the auditory stream. This does have the potential to be cognitively overloading, but if we present the information slowly step-by-step – drawing and teaching orally the concept or idea then the working memory is not over loaded.

You do not need to be an artist to dual-code effectively. All you need is to add small pieces of information at a time (another of Rosenshine’s principles). Visualisers or graphics tablets will allow your teachers to do this. See Adam Boxer’s 2020 ResearchED video on YouTube for a great workshop on dual-coding.

  • Dr Kelly Woodford-Richens is director of Basingstoke Alliance SCITT. Her book Using Cognitive Science in the Classroom, which has been edited by NASBTT executive director Emma Hollis and published by Critical Publishing as part of the Essential Guides for Early Career Teachers series, will be out later this year: www.criticalpublishing.com


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