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How can we tailor Cognitive Science strategies for novice learners? A teacher’s guide

How can we tailor Cognitive Science strategies for novice learners? A teacher’s guide

4 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory
  • The science of learning

Thanks to Cognitive Science research, effective learning strategies have never been more accessible to educators. But do they apply to all students?

While techniques such as Retrieval PracticeSpacing or Interleaving remain some of our best bets for long-term knowledge retention, these principles may need tailoring to different strategies for novice learners.

So, let’s have a look at:

  • Why novice learners need different learning strategies
  • How to tailor three key Cognitive Science-based learning strategies to novice learners

What is different about novice learners?

novice learner is a student who is new to a particular topic or skill and has little to no prior knowledge or experience in that area. They are in the early stages of learning and are still developing their understanding and proficiency.

As the “Rich-Get-Richer” Effect suggests, prior knowledge has a significant impact on future learning, by serving as a foundation for subsequent learning and sparking curiosity. The more existing knowledge you have on a topic, the easier it will be for you to learn new information about it.

But we all need to start somewhere. Since they have little to no knowledge to build upon by definition, novice learners will progress more slowly in the first stages of learning about a new topic. This means that effective Cognitive Science strategies may demand too much effort from them – unless we tailor them accordingly.

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How to tailor key Cognitive Science strategies to novice learners

To do this effectively, clear and specific instructions are crucial. This includes breaking down complex tasks into smaller, manageable steps, but also explaining to your students why you are suggesting these learning strategies to them.

Time and time again, research has highlighted Spacing, Interleaving and Retrieval Practice as up there with our best bets for effective learning. So, here’s what we suggest to tailor these three strategies to novice learners…

1. Spacing: Reduce the gap between sessions

Spacing refers to spreading learning sessions over time rather than cramming it all in one go – in other words, studying little and often instead of a lot at once. Research suggests that it enhances long-term retention and reduces the likelihood of forgetting.

A great adaptation for novice learners is to revisit and reinforce concepts more frequently, leading to better retention and understanding. This is because their rate of forgetting is likely higher than those who already know a lot about a topic.

By reducing the time between practice sessions, your students can build upon prior knowledge more easily. This not only strengthens their understanding, as they are better able to remember past information, but also makes them less likely to forget information in the long term.

2. Interleaving: Reduce the number of interleaved items

Interleaving is a learning strategy that involves mixing different concepts during practice sessions instead of covering them one at a time. Research suggests that this can lead to better long-term retention and improve transfer of knowledge, because it allows students to better compare and contrast concepts.

Research has shown that to integrate information efficiently, Interleaving is still more effective than blocked practice for novice learners. How many items is optimal to interleave? Well, research hasn’t come up with a clear answer to this. However, if we presume that working memory is more quickly overloaded in novices than experts, it stands to reason that reducing the number of items being interleaved should help.

In the research, many studies on interleaving do so with 3 or 4 items. Perhaps for novices, starting with two (a classic A vs B) will provide a good introduction to interleaving for them.

3. Retrieval Practice: Use cued responses and support

Retrieval Practice involves actively recalling information from memory rather than passively reviewing it. Encouraging students to actively retrieve information not only reinforces their understanding, but also improves their ability to recall and apply concepts in various contexts, such as exams.

For novice learners, recalling information independently can be a challenge. However, using cues or prompts can greatly support their Retrieval Practice. By providing cues, you help reduce the cognitive load on young learners, making retrieval more manageable and less overwhelming.

In a study, researchers assessed the effectiveness of retrieval-based learning on young children. In one of three experiments, students were instructed to read a text and complete a concept map based on the key information they learned. Some were provided with the text to help fill out the concept map, while others were not and had to create it from scratch.

The findings show that students who received support were more successful at recalling concepts than students who did not receive support. This research suggests that when appropriate scaffolds are in place, novice learners can benefit from Retrieval Practice.

Final thoughts

So, what does this all mean? Cognitive Science-based learning strategies are still effective for learners who may need more support at the beginning of their journey. Tailoring the way you use them to your students’ level is a crucial skill.

Moving from novice to expert learner may seem challenging, but with the right tweaks, you can support your students in becoming experts at learning new information.

Want to enhance the understanding of key learning strategies within your school or college’s staff? The Teacher CPD Academy is full of courses and resources on Spacing, Interleaving, Retrieval Practice and many more evidence-informed strategies. Request a free trial today.

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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