Approaches to Teaching and Learning inspired by cognitive science have been the subject of much discussion over the past couple of years and have increasingly been used to inform practices in education. And yet, relatively little research has been conducted into the effectiveness of these approaches when used in a school setting. In July 2021, the Education Endowment Foundation published a report in which they conducted a systematic review of the research conducted so far and this blog post summarises the results of that report.
Areas of cognitive science which are of particular interest to education include motivation and reward, working memory and long-term memory, in addition to cognitive load. These areas are informed by both cognitive psychology – that is, an approach underpinned by interpretive, behavioural, and observational methods – and cognitive neuroscience- which relies upon brain imaging technology.
They key educational theories to have evolved from these two areas include:
• Spaced learning: this is where learning and retrieval opportunities are distributed over a longer period of time rather than concentrating them in ‘massed’ practice.
• Interleaving: this involves switching between different types of problem or different ideas within the same lesson or study session.
• Retrieval practice: the use of a variety of strategies to recall information from memory, for example flash cards, practice tests or quizzing, or mind-mapping.
• Strategies to manage cognitive load: these help by focusing students on key information without overloading them, for example, by breaking down or ‘chunking’ subject content or using worked examples, exemplars, or scaffolding.
• Dual coding: the use of both verbal and non-verbal information (such as words and pictures) to teach concepts.
The EEF report claims that these theories are already having an impact on the UK’s teaching practice and both Ofsted and the Early Career Framework draw significantly on approaches inspired by cognitive science.
Although research has been conducted on the effectiveness of these approaches, much of the evidence comes from studies in the psychology laboratory or from researcher-led trials: ‘basic cognitive science’. The EEF report, on the other hand, only looks at the impact of these principles when they have been applied in the classroom: ‘applied cognitive science’.
|Basic cognitive science||Applied cognitive science|
|‘Basic’ cognitive science seeks fundamental understanding of learning, memory, and the brain. It typically uses experiments in controlled conditions to establish knowledge that is likely to have wide applicability.||‘Applied’ cognitive science seeks to apply knowledge from basic cognitive science to solve practical problems. Here we are focused on cognitive science that is applied in the classroom that aims to improve learning of children and young people aged 3–18.|
The Key Findings
– Cognitive science principles of learning can have a real impact on rates of learning in the classroom. There is value in teachers having working knowledge of cognitive science principles.
Principles include ‘spacing’ learning out over time, providing worked examples or scaffolding to support problem-solving, and presenting information both verbally and visually.
– The evidence for the application of cognitive science principles in everyday classroom conditions (applied cognitive science), however, is limited and there are uncertainties and gaps about the applicability of specific principles across subjects and age ranges.
Applied cognitive science is, so far, more limited and provides a less positive, and more complex, picture than the basic science. For many of the strategies that have been tested in practice, the evidence was restricted to particular age groups, subject areas, or learning outcomes.
– Applying the principles of cognitive science is harder than knowing the principles and one does not necessarily follow from the other. The principles do not set out or determine specific teaching and learning strategies for approaches to their implementation and therefore, considering how cognitive science principles are implemented in the classroom is critical to their success.
Special care should be taken to make sure that principles are successfully implemented, avoiding ‘lethal mutations’ when a practice becomes disconnected from the theory.
– Principles of cognitive science interact and should not be considered in isolation from each other.
There are clear links between the different approaches summarised within this review. In particular there are relationships between the approaches focused on spaced learning, interleaving, and retrieval practice and the approaches that consider the balance between didactic instruction and the pupil’s role in learning i.e. managing cognitive load, cognitive theory of multimedia learning, and embodied learning.
Suggestions for implementation
|Strategy||Suggestions for implementation|
|Spaced Learning||– Planning and implementing spacing across days and lessons takes careful curriculum planning. |
– The evidence also highlights the value of considering how spacing can be informed and enhanced by classroom feedback and assessment. Teachers can use assessment to decide how often learning material should be revisited.
|Interleaving||– There is some evidence to suggest that interleaving is well suited to problem-solving tasks where pupils select strategies to generate solutions. |
– It is possible that some pupils need to have strong foundational knowledge of learning content prior to making effective comparisons between interleaved tasks or concepts.
|Retrieval Practice||Key practices identified by teachers included: |
– Use of knowledge organisers to rehearse learning points.
– Retrieval grids.
– Labelling diagrams with gradual reduction of information.
– True or false, multiple choice, ‘cloze procedure’, and ‘finish the sentence’.
|Managing Cognitive Load||– Worked examples provide students with step-by-step, or part-by-part, demonstration of a task that makes clear the required product (that is, answers or output) and the process of completing the task. |
– There is consistent evidence that well-targeted scaffolds, guidance, and schema-based support are effective in reducing cognitive load.
|Working with Schemas (mental models, scripts, or frames: structures that organise knowledge in the mind)||– There is some evidence to suggest that concept mapping and organisation may be more effective when maps are generated by teachers rather than pupils, or when pupils already have good prior knowledge in an area.|
|Multimedia Learning and Dual Coding||– The limitations in the evidence mean that teachers should think carefully about how they use visual representations to support learning. However, they should be informational rather than decorative|
|Embodied Learning (strategies that engage and make use of movement and the body to support effective learning)||– While the evidence in this area is too limited to pull out any direct implications for practice, the theoretical evidence does point to positive links between things like a teacher’s use of gestures and other cognitive science approaches like dual coding and managing cognitive load.|
 Kaya Yilmaz (2011) The Cognitive Perspective on Learning: Its Theoretical Underpinnings and Implications for Classroom Practices, The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 84:5, 204-212, DOI: 10.1080/00098655.2011.568989.
 Weinstein et al. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications (2018) 3:2 DOI 10.1186/s41235-017-0087-y
 J. Dunlosky and K. A. Rawson (2005) Practice Tests, Spaced Practice, and Successive Relearning: Tips for Classroom Use and for Guiding Students’ Learning, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1, pp. 72-78.
 A. L. Putnam and H. L. Roediger III (2018) ‘Education and Memory: Seven Ways the Science of Memory Can Improve Classroom Learning’, in Stevens’ Handbook of Experimental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, 1, pp. 1–45.
 T. O. Alloway (2006) How does working memory work in the classroom? Educational Research and Reviews Vol. 1 (4), pp. 134-139.
 Linda Darling-Hammond, Lisa Flook, Channa Cook-Harvey, Brigid Barron & David Osher (2020) Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development, Applied Developmental Science, 24:2, 97-140, DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2018.1537791.
 R. C. Clark and R. E. Mayer (2008) Learning by viewing versus by doing: Evidencebased guidelines for Principled Learning environments, Performance Improvement, 47: 9, pp. 5-13.
 Ofsted (2019) ‘Education Inspection Framework: Overview of Research’: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-inspection-framework-overview-ofresearch