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6 Cognitive Science mistakes to avoid in the classroom

6 Cognitive Science mistakes to avoid in the classroom

5 min read
  • The science of learning

Using cognitive science findings in the classroom can be a very effective way to enhance student learning.

Here at InnerDrive, we have dived into the ins and outs of metacognitionretrieval practiceinterleaving and many more learning strategies. But as any area of research becomes popular, there is always the risk of lethal mutations.

So, what are the main mistakes to avoid when using cognitive science in the classroom?


6 mistakes to avoid when using cognitive science

1. When using Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is the act of generating an answer to a question. It can take many forms: the teacher asking students questions out loud in the classroom, past papers, flashcards, multiple-choice quizzes…

The reason why retrieval practice is so effective is because it requires students to practise recalling previously-learned information, which consolidates memory traces and increases the chances that the information will be transferred to their long-term memory.

When using retrieval practice in your classroom, avoid making it stressful or judgmental. The key to students harnessing the benefits of retrieval practice while avoiding stress is ensuring that you keep retrieval practice low-stakes.

You can do this by making retrieval practice a classroom norm. Explain to your students that they won’t be assessed, and this will simply improve their learning. They will then expect to engage with retrieval practice tasks in regular classroom learning, which removes the element of shock and stress. Make sure to avoid question timers and leader boards as these can encourage students to rush their answers, induce pressure and associate the process with high-stakes testing.

2. When using Interleaving

Interleaving is the process of mixing up revision topics within a subject when studying. Research suggests that interleaving revision is more effective than blocking, where students learn topics one by one.

One common mistake your students may be making is mixing up too many topics when using interleaving. This may be overwhelming, and students might confuse the learning material.

Another mistake is interleaving unrelated topics, or completely different subjects, which can actually hinder learning. For example, interleaving Biology and English content will not be as beneficial as interleaving different types of maths problems may be.

3. When using Spacing

Spacing is a learning strategy where students spread out their study sessions over time instead of cramming it all into one session. Research suggests that it is a highly effective learning strategy, with students who use spacing outperforming those who cram.

A common mistake with spacing is leaving too much time between study sessions. There isn’t an ideal time gap, but research has found some interesting guidelines.

A good rule of thumb is that the longer your students need to remember a piece of information, the longer they should be spacing out their revision. We recommend that the gap between sessions should be equal to between 10% and 20% of the time that students want to remember the information for. For example, if they need to remember the information over 1 week, it is more effective to study for 1 hour everyday than for 7 hours the day before. It is also more effective than starting studying for a test 6 weeks in advance and studying for 1 hour per week. Encourage your students to use this strategy and guide them to plan it appropriately.

Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

4. When using Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory highlights the limited capacity of our working memory. It suggests that we can only hold a certain amount of information in it at any one time, and processing too much new information at once may lead to cognitive overload or forgetting.

You would be forgiven for thinking you should reduce your students’ cognitive load at all costs, but this is actually a common mistake. You may be underestimating their cognitive capabilities. Having too much cognitive load may result in ineffective learning, but not having enough may lead to student boredom and slow down the learning process. The amount of cognitive load has to be just right. This is known as the “Goldilocks Effect”, which you can read about more in our blog about 4 problems Cognitive Load Theory still needs to sort out.

Aim to optimise your students’ cognitive load rather than simply reducing it in order to accelerate their learning as much as possible. This will ensure that your students are not overwhelmed but are still being challenged in the classroom.

5. When using Metacognition

Metacognition can be defined as a student’s ability to think about their thoughts and choose a helpful thought process. This strategy allows students to direct, review and monitor their own learning. Research in support of metacognition as a learning strategy has highlighted it as one of the most impactful and cost-effective teaching approaches to optimise student learning.

Metacognitive strategies can be applied to the three different stages of learning:

  • The planning stage: when starting a new task, encourage students to use self-question and set goals.
  • The Doing stage: when students are doing a task, encourage them to self-regulate and monitor their learning.
  • The Reviewing stage: after completing a task, encourage students to self-evaluate and self-test what they have learned.

One common mistake when using metacognition to enhance student learning in your classroom is if it is too vague and generalised. To ensure that your students are harnessing the full benefits of metacognition, make sure that you are teaching them metacognitive strategies that are subject-specific. Your students will probably find it quite difficult to transfer generic tips to specific tasks or subjects.

Using these strategies across the whole curriculum rather than in just some lessons or subjects is also important. This will ensure that your students eventually implement metacognitive strategies across all of their learning automatically, optimising their learning to the fullest extent.

6. When using Dual Coding

Dual coding is the idea that using both words and pictures in teaching material allows students to retain the information better, especially when it comes to vocabulary and key concepts. Research suggests that students performed twice as well when problem solving after they used a dual coding strategy compared to those who didn’t.

However, using it incorrectly may have the opposite effect. So, when using dual coding in your lessons, avoid using unrelated images to represent information, and make sure they serve to help teach the information, rather than distract as a purely illustrative device.

The whole point of dual coding is to consolidate the same information in two different ways. Using relevant images and ensuring that they are not distracting from the main content when designing resources for students is one way to implement dual coding. Alternatively, asking your students to produce their own images or graphic organisers can help them further consolidate information into their long-term memory stores.

Final thoughts

Using cognitive science principles in the classroom can be very effective, especially when they are directly applied to learning strategies. However, as always, the devil is in the details and in how we implement these findings. By being aware of these common mistakes, hopefully it will translate into even more effective teaching & learning.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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