A while ago I wrote an article called The Science of Learning which was, in turn, based on a keynote speech I’d given which distilled the principles of cognitive science into six key points. For each of the six points, I summarised the cognitive principle at work and explored the practical implications for the classroom.
Today, a new non-profit organisation in the US called Deans for Impact produced a report, endorsed by the cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, of the same name which did much the same thing… you’d think I’d be jealous of all the attention it’s getting but I’m not because it happens to be really rather good. In effect, it summarises a lot of what I’ve also written about in recent years (over the course of several thousand words!) in just a few pages…and does so with greater rigour! My advice, therefore, is to ignore me and read the report…
In just ten pages, the report summarises a broad range of research into thirteen cognitive principles and, for each principle, lists implications for classroom teaching.
You can download the report here: The_Science_of_Learning.
Find out more about the authors of the report at http://www.deansforimpact.org
Below, I recount each of the thirteen cognitive principles – followed by an abridged list of classroom implications – and, where relevant, provide links to articles I’ve written that expand on those principles. At the end I include the full list of references from the Deans for Impact publication and highlight the papers and books I would particularly recommend.
Cognitive principle 1: Students learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know.
- A well-sequenced curriculum is important to ensure that students have the prior knowledge they need to master new ideas.
- Teachers use analogies because they map a new idea onto one that students already know.
My article on using cognitive principles to inform your lesson planning can be found here
Here’s my article on teaching knowledge before skill
Find out about using metaphor to make ideas stick in my piece on outstanding teaching
Cognitive principle 2: To learn, students must transfer information from working memory (where it is consciously processed) to long-term memory (where it can be stored and later retrieved). Students have limited working memory capacities that can be overwhelmed by tasks that are cognitively too demanding. Understanding new ideas can be impeded if students are confronted with too much information at once.
- Teachers can use “worked examples” as one method of reducing students’ cognitive burdens.
- Teachers can use multiple modalities to convey an idea; for example, they can speak while showing a graphic. If teachers take care to ensure that the two types of information complement one another — such as showing an animation while describing it aloud — learning is enhanced.
- Making content explicit through carefully paced explanation, modeling, and examples can help ensure that students are not overwhelmed.
My article on the zone of proximal development
My article on attention, encoding, storage and retrieval
Cognitive principle 3: Cognitive development does not progress through a fixed sequence of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts.
- Content should not be kept from students because it is “developmentally inappropriate.” To answer the question “is the student ready?” it’s best to consider “has the student mastered the prerequisites?”
My article on expertise
Cognitive principle 4: Information is often withdrawn from memory just as it went in. We usually want students to remember what information means and why it is important, so they should think about meaning when they encounter to-be-remembered material.
- Teachers can assign students tasks that require explanation (e.g., answering questions about how or why something happened) or that require students to meaningfully organize material.
- Teachers can help students learn to impose meaning on hard-to-remember content. Stories and mnemonics are particularly effective at helping students do this.
My article on forgetting
Cognitive principle 5: Practice is essential to learning new facts, but not all practice is equivalent.
- Teachers can space practice over time, with content being reviewed across weeks or months, to help students remember that content over the longterm.
- Teachers can explain to students that trying to remember something makes memory more long-lasting than other forms of studying. Teachers can use low- or no-stakes quizzes in class to do this, and students can use self-tests.
- Teachers can interleave (i.e., alternate) practice of different types of content.
My article on deliberate practice
My article on an ethic of excellence
Cognitive principle 6: Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long-term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied. The size and content of this set varies by subject matter.
- Teachers will need to teach different sets of facts at different ages. For example, the most obvious (and most thoroughly studied) sets of facts are math facts and letter-sound pairings in early elementary grades.
My article on teaching knowledge
My article on fast mapping
Cognitive principle 7: Effective feedback is often essential to acquiring new knowledge and skills.
- Good feedback is:
- Specific and clear;
- Focused on the task rather than the student; and
- Explanatory and focused on improvement rather than merely verifying performance.
My article on effective feedback
Cognitive principle 8: The transfer of knowledge or skills to a novel problem requires both knowledge of the problem’s context and a deep understanding of the problem’s underlying structure.
- Teachers can ensure that students have sufficient background knowledge to appreciate the context of a problem.
My articles on great teaching
My article on high expectations
Cognitive principle 9: We understand new ideas via examples, but it’s often hard to see the unifying underlying concepts in different examples.
- Teachers can have students compare problems with different surface structures that share the same underlying structure. For example, a student may learn to calculate the area of a rectangle via an example of word problem using a table top.
- For multi-step procedures, teachers can encourage students to identify and label the substeps required for solving a problem.
- Teachers can alternate concrete examples (e.g., word problems) and abstract representations (e.g., mathematical formulas) to help students recognize the underlying structure of problems.
My article on constructive alignment and the SOLO taxonomy
Cognitive principle 10: Beliefs about intelligence are important predictors of student behavior in school.
- Teachers should know that students are more motivated if they believe that intelligence and ability can be improved through hard work.
- Teachers can contribute to students’ beliefs about their ability to improve their intelligence by praising productive student effort and strategies (and other processes under student control) rather than their ability.
- Teachers can prompt students to feel more in control of their learning by encouraging them to set learning goals (i.e., goals for improvement) rather than performance goals (i.e., goals for competence or approval).
My article on developing a growth mindset in the classroom
My article on behaviour
Cognitive principle 11: Self-determined motivation (a consequence of values or pure interest) leads to better longterm outcomes than controlled motivation (a consequence of reward/punishment or perceptions of self-worth).
- Teachers control a number of factors related to reward or praise that influence student motivation, such as:
- whether a task is one the student is already motivated to perform;
- whether a reward offered for a task is verbal or tangible;
- whether a reward offered for a task is expected or unexpected;
- whether praise is offered for effort, completion, or quality of performance; and
- whether praise or a reward occurs immediately or after a delay.
My article on the growth mindset
My article on nature versus nurture
Cognitive principle 12: The ability to monitor their own thinking can help students identify what they do and do not know, but people are often unable to accurately judge their own learning and understanding.
- Teachers can engage students in tasks that will allow them to reliably monitor their own learning (e.g., testing, self-testing, and explanation).
My article on high expectations
My article on excellence
My article on the Pygmalion Effect
Cognitive principle 13: Students will be more motivated and successful in academic environments when they believe that they belong and are accepted in those environments.
- Teachers can reassure students that doubts about belonging are common and will diminish over time.
- Teachers can encourage students to see critical feedback as a sign of others’ beliefs that they are able to meet high standards.
My article on academic behaviours
My article on the foundations of great teaching
More recommended reading:
My article on memory being the residue of thought – here
The Deans for Impact report ends with some words of warning – that teachers should be able to recognise common misconceptions of cognitive science that relate to teaching and learning. And it goes on to share some of these myths that surround cognitive science, including:
- Students do not have different “learning styles.”
- Humans do not use only 10% of their brains.
- People are not preferentially “right-brained” or “leftbrained” in the use of their brains.
- Novices and experts cannot think in all the same ways.
- Cognitive development does not progress via a fixed progression of age-related stages.
I’m glad the report adds this final caveat because I am particularly concerned about the way cognitive science is being applied to the classroom and have written a two-part article for SecEd magazine (which will be published in November – read a preview here) warning of the dangers of teachers hijacking neuroscience when there is, as yet, no evidence that neuroscience can be meaningfully applied to the classroom.
Here’s a short extract from that article to give you an indication of my point of view:
Neuroscience has gained traction in recent years and people have become more interested in learning about how the brain works. This is, of course, a good thing and we should always encourage intellectual curiosity of this kind. It’s partly what makes teaching a profession, after all. The brain is fascinating and, although there remains much mystery about how it works, a lot more is now known that could influence the way we behave and, crucially, the way we teach and learn. But if we insist on using neuroscience to explain common sense approaches to teaching, we are in danger of losing the debate by detracting from the real argument, by making the argument difficult to follow, or by making false connections between behavioural and physical phenomena.
Among the concerns I raise in the article, I say I think neuroscience language is being used as a surrogate marker of a ‘good’ explanation, regardless of what is actually being said. In truth, neuroscience information is usually only decorative and is irrelevant to the explanation’s logic.
I also argue that neuroscience language is sometimes used not just to add weight to an argument but to divert the reader from weaknesses in an argument. People tend to think that longer explanations are a sign of expertise and when a writer presents related but logically irrelevant details to an argument it makes it more difficult for the reader to encode, and therefore later recall, the main argument of a text because their attention is diverted by ‘seductive details’.
And I argue that neuroscience is used as a reductionist explanation about the world. In other words, when we read neuroscience language in a bogus neuroscience explanation, we feel as if we have been given a physical explanation for a behavioural phenomenon. The use of neuroscience makes behavioural phenomena feel connected to the physical sciences and, therefore, a certainty supported by graphs and data.
My unease is not new: I warned here that we should be discerning in our use of evidence in education.
I highlight in bold the papers/books I would particularly recommend:
Agarwal, P. K., Bain, P. M., & Chamberlain, R. W. (2012). The value of applied research: Retrieval practice improves classroom learning and recommendations from a teacher, a principal, and a scientist. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 437-448.
Agodini, R., Harris, B., Atkins-Burnett, S., Heaviside, S., Novak, T., & Murphy, R. (2009). Achievement Effects of Four Early Elementary School Math Curricula: Findings from First Graders in 39 Schools. NCEE 2009-4052. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.
Ainsworth, S., Bibby, P., & Wood, D. (2002). Examining the Effects of Different Multiple Representational Systems in Learning Primary Mathematics. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 11(1), 25-61.
Atkinson, R. K., Derry, S. J., Renkl, A., & Wortham, D. (2000). Learning from Examples: Instructional Principles from the Worked Examples Research. Review of Educational Research, 70(2), 181-214.
Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263.
Bottge, B. A., Rueda, E., Serlin, R. C., Hung, Y.-H., & Kwon, J. M. (2007). Shrinking Achievement Differences With Anchored Math Problems. The Journal of Special Education, 41(1), 31-49.
Boyd, R. (2008, February 7). Do People Only Use 10 Percent of Their Brains? Retrieved March 7, 2015, from Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-people-only-use-10-percent-of-their-brains/
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Burnette, J. L., O’Boyle, E. H., VanEpps, E. M., Pollack, J. M., & Finkel, E. J. (2013). Mind-sets matter: A meta-analytics review of implicit theories and self-regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 139(3), 655-701.
Butler, D. L., & Winne, P. H. (1995). Feedback and self-regulated learning: A theoretical synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65(3), 245-281.
Cameron, J., Banko, K. M., & Pierce, W. D. (2001). Pervasive negative effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation: The myth continues. The Behavior Analyst, 24(1), 1-44.
Catrambone, R. (1996). Generalizing solution procedures learned from examples. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 22(4), 1020-1031.
Catrambone, R. (1998). The subgoal learning model: Creating better examples so that students can solve novel problems. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 127(4), 355-376.
Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed Practice in Verbal Recall Tasks: A Review and Qualitative Synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(3), 354-380.
Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1992). The Split-Attention Effect as a Factor in the Design of Instruction. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 62(2), 233-246.
Cohen, G., Steele, C., & Ross, L. (1999). The Mentor’s Dilemma: Providing Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(10), 1302-1318.
Davis, K. D., Winsler, A., & Middleton, M. (2006). Students’ perceptions of rewards for academic performance by parents and teachers: Relations with achievement and motivation in college. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 167(2), 211-220.
Day, S. B., & Goldstone, R. L. (2012). The import of knowledge export: Connecting findings and theories of transfer of learning. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 153-176.
Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.
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Flynn, E., O’Malley, C., & Wood, D. (2004). A longitudinal, microgenetic study of the emergence of false belief understanding and inhibition skills. Developmental Science, 7(1), 103-115.
Gentner, D., Levine, S. C., Dhillon, S., Ping, R., Bradley, C., Poltermann, A., et al. (2015). Rapid learning in a children’s museum via analogical comparison [in press]. Cognitive Science.
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Graesser, A. C., & Olde, B. A. (2003). How does one know whether a person understands a device? The quality of the questions the person asks when the device breaks down. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(3), 524-536.
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