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The Cognitive Science behind Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction

The Cognitive Science behind Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction

9 min read
  • Rosenshine’s Principles

If you are not already familiar with Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, we’ve given a brief rundown of what his research suggests here. In short, Rosenshine’s aim with his Principles was to bridge the gap between research and the classroom by providing effective, research-based strategies that teachers can implement in the classroom.

Read our complete guide to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction…

When we were reviewing Rosenshine’s Principles, it struck us that it interlinks and is underpinned by several different elements of cognitive science. This blog explores what these are and how it all ties together.

So, let’s look at these links between Rosenshine’s Principles and education theories…

The cognitive science behind Rosenshine principles

The cognitive science behind Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval Practice, sometimes referred to as “the Testing Effect” is the act of generating answers to questions about previously learnt materials. Retrieval Practice is one of the most effective revision strategies a student can use to enhance their learning and memory recall. By recalling previously learnt information, students create stronger memory traces which not only ensures that information will be transferred to their long-term memory, but also provides a stronger foundation for future learning.

How does it relate to Rosenshine’s Principles?

Knowing about retrieval practice helps us understand the mechanics behind four of Rosenshine’s Principles:

Principle 1 — Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning: Teachers should dedicate time at the start of a lesson to review previous topics and assess students’ understanding.

Principle 3 — Ask lots of good questions: To practise retrieval, Rosenshine’s research suggests that the most successful teachers ask lots of good questions. On the other hand, the least effective teachers were the ones who only asked a few questions throughout the lesson.

Principle 6 — Check for student understanding: Teachers should stop every now and then to ask students questions, what their opinion on the topic is and to summarise information. This is so they can address any misunderstandings a student may have.

Principle 10 — Engage students in weekly and monthly review: Getting students to space out their use of retrieval practice techniques ensures students relearn content and maintain this information in their long-term memory.

Practical implications in the classroom

Low-stress quizzes and games

Daily, weekly and monthly quizzes that don’t contribute towards students’ grades are a great way to monitor student progress, as retrieval practice works best when the stakes are low.

Ask questions

To check for student understanding, teachers should ask questions such as “why is this true” and “why do you think that is”, as this shows whether information has been stored in students’ long-term memory. By generating an answer to these questions, students cement their understanding into their long-term memory. Rosenshine himself suggested some useful question prompts – read more about them here…

Get students to summarise

Summarising or paraphrasing information forces students to engage more deeply with the material they’re learning and is a great way to assess whether they have fully grasped what you’re teaching them. By establishing the key concepts, irrelevant information is ignored, enhancing memory retention.


Spacing means studying little and often instead of cramming it all into a single day. By spacing out their learning, students forget and re-learn the information, cementing it into their long-term memory. Research shows that students who spaced out their learning performed 10% to 30% better in their final test results than those who had crammed their revision. 

How does it relate to Rosenshine’s Principles?

Principle 6 — Check for student understanding: Teachers should regularly check whether students understand previously learnt material to assess if this information has been successfully and accurately stored in their long-term memory.

Principle 10 — Engage students in weekly and monthly review: Successive relearning (the combination of both spacing and retrieval practice) allows students not only to maintain their ability to successfully apply their knowledge, but also to get a better understanding of the bigger picture.

Practical implications in the classroom

Use the Cornell Note Taking Method

Students should regularly refer back to their notes to answer the questions and define the key terms they wrote in the cue column. If answered incorrectly, students can refer back to the note column to relearn any forgotten information.

Do weekly and monthly quizzes

When finishing a topic, teachers should give students an informal topic test to determine whether students have fully understood the topic or need more time practising.


Interleaving focuses on individual study sessions. Unlike blocking, which involves dedicating a whole session to a single task or subject, interleaving involves mixing up the subjects and topics a student chooses to study in a single session.

One study showed that students performed significantly better in their final exam when interleaving their revision compared to those who blocked their revision. This is because interleaving requires students to access previous knowledge to make links between different topics, enhancing memory recall as a result.

How does it relate to Rosenshine’s Principles?

Principle 5 — Guide student practice: During class time, teachers could go around and guide students’ practice by asking questions, addressing common misconceptions and making links between topics to enhance their understanding.

Principle 10 — Engage students in weekly and monthly review: When reviewing knowledge on a weekly and monthly basis, students can interleave the topics that they choose review rather than focus on one topic at a time.

Practical implications in the classroom

Interleaving is more efficient when the topics being mixed are related. For example, when studying biology, you can alternate between evolution and cell biology instead of focusing on evolution alone. Here’s what it looks like:

However, this isn’t a cure-all and it’s important to know when to use this strategy or not. Unfortunately, students often don’t know what’s best for their revision, preferring easy but ineffective strategies. Next time they are studying for a test, it’s worth introducing your students to interleaved study and its benefits and encourage them to give it a try.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory emphasises how our working memory is so small, if students are presented with too much information at once, their brain can experience a cognitive overload. As a result, the learning process gets slower or completely shuts down because the brain can no longer process all this information. Consequently, this information doesn’t get transferred to their long-term memory. 

How does it relate to Rosenshine’s Principles?

Principle 2 — Present material in small steps: By breaking down a task into small, sequential steps, students are less likely to experience a cognitive overload as they’re not having to pay attention to too much information at once.

Principle 4 — Provide models and worked examples: Providing students with a framework of what information they should include, students are less likely to learn redundant information. This frees up space in their working memory so they can focus on other things.

Principle 6 — Check for student understanding: Regularly assessing students’ understanding before presenting new information means misconceptions can be addressed and students have time to process and transfer this information into their long-term memory.

Principle 8 — Provide scaffolding: Supporting students until they are confident with a topic reduces the stress placed on their working memory. This way, students aren’t overwhelmed by the new topic.

Practical implications in the classroom

Reduce the number of words on your slides

The less information you present to students at one time, the better. Having too much information on your slides means that students won’t know what to focus on. Be concise so students can prioritise and effectively process the key points.

Model task completion

Show students the steps they need to take to successfully complete a task and explain why each step is important. This way, students can obtain a better understanding of what they’re meant to do and are less likely to make common errors.

Growth Mindset

Growth mindset can be defined as a person’s belief that their intelligence and abilities can, with effort, develop and improve over time. It’s the opposite of a fixed mindset, which is the belief that intelligence and a person’s talents are set in stone.

Students with a growth mindset seek out better feedback, have strong self-regulation and are less stressed. It has also been indirectly linked to better academic performance.

How does it relate to Rosenshine’s Principles?

Principle 2 — Present material in small steps: Breaking a big task down into smaller chunks can make it seem more manageable so students are less likely to get overwhelmed. 

Principle 5 — Guide student practice: During this time, students can ask their teacher questions and get the help they need if they’re struggling will a topic instead of giving up because they’re stuck.

Principle 7 — Obtain a high success rate: Aiming for an 80% success rate allows students to improve academically without being overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations or getting complacent.

Principle 9 — Engage in independent practice: The only way to get better is to practice. Having a growth mindset by itself is not sufficient; it has to be accompanied by extra practice and effort.

Practical implications in the classroom

Have students acknowledge their success

Students should take a step back and reflect on their progress every now and then. This will improve motivation as students will see all that they’ve accomplished by believing in themselves.

The power of “yet”

Students should recognise that there’s a huge difference between “I can’t do this” and “I can’t do this yet”. Progress takes time: it’s important that students reframe their weaknesses more positively.

Help your staff understand the research behind Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, and how to apply them in the classroom.


Metacognition refers to a student’s ability to critically analyse the way that they think so they can monitor and reflect upon their academic performance. Students with strong metacognitive skills choose the most helpful and appropriate strategies to complete a task, are less likely to procrastinate and have strong self-awareness.

How does it relate to Rosenshine’s Principles?

Principle 3 – Ask questions: By asking metacognitive questions, students can monitor and review their performance.

Principle 4 — Provide models and worked examples: This way, students have a clearer understanding of the direction they need to go in to successfully complete the task and can unpack a task more readily.

Principle 8 — Provide scaffolding: Teachers can prompt their students to think about what successful strategies can be used to complete a task and to think critically.

Practical implications in the classroom

Encourage self-questioning

Research shows that students who ask themselves metacognitive questions such as “what should I do”, “how is this similar to a previous task” and “what can I do better next time” whilst completing a task, perform better academically.

Verbalise your thought process

This can help students understand what a helpful thought process looks like and replicate it in future tasks.


Resilient learners are those that reframe stressful situations and mistakes as opportunities to become better learners. This is because students with high levels of resilience maintain their intrinsic motivation despite experiencing setbacks whilst working towards their long-term goals. Without resilience, students might instead get frustrated, believe that they can’t get better, and give up trying.

How does it relate to Rosenshine’s Principles?

Principle 5 — Guide student practice: The more practice students get at answering topic-related questions, the better equipped they are to use alternative methods when stuck as they have a stronger foundational understanding of the subject.

Principle 9 — Engage in independent practice: If students can overcome challenges and setbacks whilst completing work on their own in a non-stressful environment, they’ll be less inclined to fall back on the “I can’t” mentality when doing an exam.

Practical implications in the classroom

Avoid “I can’t”

When stuck on a difficult task, students shouldn’t fall back on the “I can’t” mentality and should instead ask themselves metacognitive questions such as “what could I do differently” before trying alternative methods or techniques.

Use flashcards

Students can revise using the Leitner system, which is a 5-step process that uses flashcards and a “learning box”. Our blog on a better way to revise provides a clear guide and explanation as to why this is useful.

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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