Best practice: Cognitive science in the classroom

This article was written for SecEd Magazine

Cognitive science has much to tell us about how children learn and how we should teach. But converting this into classroom practice can sometimes feel challenging. Matt Bromley offers 30 tangible tips for teachers

According to the educational psychologist, Paul Kirschner, learning is a change in long-term memory.

In other words, for pupils to learn they must store new information in their long-term memory, or they must alter the information that is already stored in their long-term memory, perhaps by connecting it to new information (building ever-more complex schemata – or mental maps – that speed up pupils’ thinking) or by adding further layers of meaning to it (thus deepening a pupil’s understanding and aiding transferability).

How, then, can we help pupils to change their long-term memory and thus learn, for this surely is our primary aim as teachers? Well, I suggest we follow three simple steps:

  • Stimulate pupils’ senses to gain the active attention of working memory.
  • Make pupils think hard but efficiently to encode information in long-term memory.
  • Plan opportunities for pupils to apply prior learning to build its retrieval and storage strength.

But the big question is: How can we convert the cognitive science into classroom practice? Below I offer 10 tangible tips for each of these three steps…

Step 1: Stimulate pupils’ senses

To stimulate sensory memory and to gain the active attention of working memory, we can:

Attend to the classroom culture: Create an ethos – delivered through words and actions – in which pupils feel welcomed, valued, enthusiastic about learning, engaged in their learning, eager to experiment, and rewarded for their hard work. We can do this by: greeting pupils at the door and using their names; encouraging everyone to contribute and explicitly teaching oracy skills; modelling enthusiasm by being excited about teaching; plan lessons on the premise of what pupils will think about rather than do.

Promote risk-taking and mistake-making: Create a classroom in which taking risks and making mistakes is the default position and in which drafting and redrafting, improving work in response to feedback, is the norm. Provide opportunities for pupils to respond to feedback in the lesson to signal its importance and enable the teacher to recognise and celebrate progress.

Reward hard work and effort: Reward pupils’ hard work as opposed to attainment because to do so creates a level playing field on which every pupil has equal chance of being recognised for the progress they have made from their individual starting points. Avoid giving praise for the sake of it or praising pupils for doing no more than what is expected.

Foster a sense of intrinsic motivation: Intrinsic motivation is founded on pupils’ autonomy (the desire to take control of their own learning), mastery (the urge to get better and better), and purpose (a yearning to do what they do in the service of a wider goal). Intrinsic motivation is the want to learn but it is contingent on pupils also developing the need to learn: pupils need to know why they are learning what they are learning and how that learning fits in to the bigger picture – why it matters and how and when they will use it.

Articulate specific learning outcomes and task instructions: Decide on a key take-away message for each lesson and use this to frame learning outcomes so that pupils know what they are learning and why. Then share the success criteria and model excellence. Once the success criteria have been agreed and shared, model what a perfect final product looks like and deconstruct it to show pupils each of its constituent parts so that they can emulate it.

Create an open loop: Promote a culture in which drafting and redrafting in response to feedback is considered the norm. Ensure that feedback leads to improvements and to further practice, which in turn should lead to more feedback and so on. Read more here.

Explicitly teach study skills: Establish routines whereby pupils regularly: self-quiz – testing themselves on study notes; elaborate – relate new information to what they already know, explaining it to somebody else; generate – attempt to answer questions before being taught the answers; reflect – review their learning and how effectively they learnt; and calibrate – remove the illusion of knowing something by answering every question even if they think that it is too easy and they know the answer.

Make ideas stick by grounding them in a sensory reality: Make ideas tangible – for example, using analogy and metaphor to draw connections between new information and prior learning or to place new ideas into a useful context. And make ideas real – for example, make abstract concepts concrete, show rather than tell, and appeal to pupils’ emotions to make them feel and, therefore, make them care.

Dual code: Combine verbal instructions with visuals so that pupils can utilise the verbal and visual processing powers contained in working memory, thus increasing their capacity to handle information.

Improve pupils’ ability to transfer learning: Help pupils to connect what they learn in one topic to what they learn in another, and indeed to other situations in life, and help them connect their learning from one context to another context.

Step 2: Thinking hard but efficiently

We must make pupils think hard but efficiently to encode information in long-term memory. To achieve this, we can:

Pitch work in pupils’ “struggle zones”: Ensure work is challenging but achievable; that it is just beyond pupils’ current capabilities but within their reach because if the work is too easy, pupils will complete it out of habit, and if the work is too difficult, pupils will do one of two things: either they will not even attempt it or else they will quickly overload their working memory.

Plan for desirable difficulties: Position roadblocks along pupils’ learning journeys to slow down their thinking – and thus their initial encoding of new information – to improve the subsequent storage strength of that information, and the ease and efficiency with which that information can later be retrieved from long-term memory.

Provide high levels of challenge for every pupil: Have high expectations of every pupil in the class and ensure there is no hiding place. But encourage pupils to accept the challenge by creating a culture in which the threat level is reduced or removed.

Teach to the top: Do not pitch work to the middle of the bell curve, teaching the “average” pupil then scaffolding lower performing pupils and stretching higher performing ones. Instead, teach the knowledge and skills that the top-performing pupil in the class will be able to master.

Make effective use of teacher explanations: Teacher explanations work best when: the teacher presents new information in small chunks; the teacher thinks aloud to make what they do implicitly explicit, making the invisible visible; the teacher makes use of metaphors and analogies to contextualise new information, making abstract and alien concepts more concrete, tangible and relatable; the teacher makes use of dual coding – combining verbal instructions with visuals such as charts and graphics; and, once explanations have been given, the teacher affords pupils plenty of opportunity to practise and then provides systematic corrections and feedback guiding pupils’ practice and providing cues when required.

Make effective use of teacher modelling: Good models demonstrate what works as well as what doesn’t; good models provide pupils with a picture of the final product, an example of excellence, something to aim for and achieve, but they also provide examples of work that is not quite so good in order that pupils know what mistakes to avoid.

Promote classroom talk: Provide plentiful opportunities for pupils to engage in classroom talk – including whole-class questioning. Agree a set of rules for classroom talk and model good oracy at all times.

Use closed questioning as a form of assessment: Use closed questions – such as multiple-choice or hinge questions – as a form of assessment to ascertain who has “got it” and who has not, and to identify what needs reteaching, recapping or developing further. Read more on hinge questions here.

Use open questions to deepen pupils’ understanding: Use open questions to deepen pupils’ understanding by asking big, philosophical questions which challenge pupils’ thinking and encourage discussion. Dialogic questions – such as Socratic questions – don’t just cause thinking, they promote critical thinking, too. Read more on dialogic questions here.

Organise learning materials to support cognitive load: Make sure each slide of a PowerPoint presentation conveys one message and that slides are clean and concise with simple backgrounds. Highlight important “take-away” information, emphasising key points via coloured, bold or large fonts. Display information long enough for pupils to absorb it and reduce potential distractions around the information.

Step 3: Apply prior learning

We must plan opportunities for pupils to apply prior learning to build its retrieval and storage strength. We can do this by:

Repeat learning at least three times: Plan opportunities for pupils to repeat prior learning over and over. The more pupils repeat their prior learning, the stronger the storage of that information becomes and the more efficient they become at retrieving that information from long-term memory and returning it to their working memory to use it.

Make pupils struggle in targeted ways: Plan for deliberate practice by making pupils struggle in targeted ways, slowing their initial learning down so that pupils stop and stumble, and so crucially must think harder to make sense of something. Moreover, ensure that practice is targeted and mistake-focused.

Space practice sessions out: Leave increasingly long gaps before returning to a topic so pupils get to the point of almost forgetting what they have previously learnt and must think hard about that information to retrieve it from their long-term memories.

Interleave practice topics: Focus on each topic for a shorter period but return to it more often in-between studying other topics. As well as improving storage and retrieval strength, interleaving helps pupils forge new connections between topics and therefore improves their ability to transfer learning from one context to another.

Repeat learning in multiple contexts: Every time we return to prior learning, get pupils to do different things with it, not just repeat it verbatim. For example, pupils could test themselves, test each other, devise quizzes, give presentations to the class, teach each other, write an essay, draw a diagram, create a knowledge organiser, and so on.

Set practice tests to boost learning: When pupils are tested (or indeed test themselves) and correctly retrieve an answer from their long-term memories, that memory is further improved. But failure is also useful because it signals that the answer needs to be revisited and revised.

Explicitly teach pupils how to take notes: Pupils’ notes should be the result of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis; they should provide a thoughtful summarisation of the key points rather than be verbatim transcriptions of what the teacher has said. While taking notes, pupils should periodically pause to ask themselves questions such as: What are the key ideas here? What terms are new to me and what do they mean? How do the ideas here relate to what I already know?

Encourage pupils to test themselves on prior learning: Self-quizzing is about retrieving knowledge and skills from memory and is far more effective than simply re-reading one’s study notes.

Plan for daily free recall: Develop a routine whereby pupils spend 10 minutes at the end of every lesson filling a blank piece of paper with everything they can remember from that lesson. Start the next lesson with a recap quiz. Set a weekly homework whereby pupils create summary sheets for the previous week’s learning.

Use knowledge organisers to capture key learning and frame revision: Knowledge organisers can help to focus pupils’ attentions on the key concepts and vocabulary they need to learn. The content of these organisers could be used to frame the daily recaps and weekly quizzes, as well as the end-of-topic tests.

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