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What ECTs and PGCE students want to know about Cognitive Science

Notes from the field: What ECTs and PGCE students want to know about Cognitive Science

5 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed

At InnerDrive, we are privileged to collaborate with schools and colleges across the UK and increasingly around the world, which gives us the unique opportunity to see the spectrum of the educational landscape up close.

Our key focus area is Cognitive Science – a fascinating field that intersects psychology, neuroscience and education. During one of our recent Teacher CPD workshops, we had an fascinating conversation with some delegates about the desire for more knowledge in that area for ECTs and PGCE students.

Four questions about incorporating evidence-informed strategies early on in a teacher’s career really stood out to us. This blog covers these questions and explores why knowing about Cognitive Science is essential at the start of one’s career.

How can Cognitive Science help ECTs and PGCE students?

Cognitive Science is all about understanding how students learn, which is useful knowledge, to say the least, for new teachers and those studying for their PGCE. By getting to grips with the principles of Cognitive Science, you can really boost your teaching techniques and help your students learn more effectively.

That’s why we make sure that the training and resources available on our Teacher CPD Academy reflect the Early Careers Framework (ECF) standards. If you’re a Senior Leader looking to enhance your staff’s teaching practice, request a free trial today to see it in action.

So, let’s dive into 4 questions about Cognitive Science many ECTs and PGCE students want the answers to…

1. Does Cognitive Load Theory mean teaching to the test?

Cognitive Load Theory is a concept that comes from psychology. It was created by John Sweller in the 1980s and suggests that our working memory, which is the part of our mind that actively deals with information, can only handle a certain amount. When we’re learning something new, if it requires more mental effort than our working memory can handle, it can make it harder for us to understand and remember.

So, what does this mean for teaching? Cognitive Load Theory tells us that how you design your lessons should take into account how much your students’ minds can handle. Information should be presented in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. By doing this, you can help them understand better and remember more in the long run.

The danger here is that this can be misinterpreted. For example, the Redundancy Effect can be misunderstood as removing all irrelevant information, i.e., teaching only what is going to be on the test. This is not what the theory implies. Instead, it places the limitation of working memory at its core, which therefore suggests that we need to drip-feed information, especially when it is new or complex, so as to avoid this overload.

2. Can Retrieval Practice be used in skill-based subjects like PE?

Retrieval Practice is a Teaching & Learning method that requires your students to recall information from their memory. It’s a powerful technique because it strengthens memory and improves the long-term retention of knowledge. When your students actively retrieve what they’ve learned, it helps them understand the material more deeply, apply their knowledge in new situations and remember the information in the future.

In teaching, Retrieval Practice is very relevant. It can enhance learning and boost exam performance. Teachers can use Retrieval Practice techniques like quizzes, flashcards or simply asking students to write down everything they remember about a topic.

It is easy (but incorrect) to think of Retrieval Practice as being only applicable for isolated facts, or nuggets of information. This is not the case. As it is impossible to separate knowledge from skills, every subject contains opportunity for Retrieval Practice. What this looks like in different subjects is something that each subject teacher is better placed to suggest compared to external researchers.

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3. How long should the gap be when spacing learning?

Spacing, also known as “Distributed Practice” or “Spaced Learning”, is a strategy that involves breaking up learning in chunks spread over time. Instead of trying to learn everything in one go, Spacing splits the learning into several sessions with breaks in between. This method has been found to improve memory and help us remember information for longer. Research has shown that using Spacing instead of cramming can result in a 10% to 30% difference in final test results – making it a very attractive technique for students.

For teachers, understanding and using Spacing can really help. It can make lessons more effective, engage your students more and improve overall learning. Teachers can use Spacing by splitting content into smaller parts and revisiting them at different times throughout the school year.

There haven’t been too many studies that look at the optimal gap, though some have tried. Even those tend to suggest general guidelines as opposed to set rules, with the researchers noting that “the optimally efficient gap between study sessions is not some absolute quantity that can be recommended”.

When we asked a Spacing researcher this question as part of our Expert Insight series on our Teacher CPD Academy, they said the best suggestion is to simply revisit material just before students had forgotten it. This is partly why regular checking for understanding is so important.

4. Does Interleaving cement or create knowledge?

Interleaving is a teaching method that mixes or alternates different topics or skills in practice sessions. It’s helpful for teaching because it can make learning stick better and help your students remember things for longer. It challenges your students to pull information from their memory and make connections between different ideas. Studies show that Interleaving helps students remember things for longer, apply what they’ve learned to new situations and get better at problem-solving.

In teaching, Interleaving can be used in various ways. You can mix different topics within a lesson, provide practice worksheets that combine multiple skills or include review sessions where your students have to recall information from previous lessons. Incorporating Interleaving into teaching practices can help your students make connections between different concepts and improve their overall understanding.

One challenging question on Interleaving is: How much base knowledge does a learner need to have before they can interleave? After all, you need to have some knowledge about X before you can compare it to Y. This would suggest that Interleaving can be a very beneficial tool for cementing existing prior knowledge, but that you wouldn’t want to rush it to straight away if students are brand new to a topic.

Final thoughts

Understanding Cognitive Science is a game-changer for Early Career Teachers and those yet to start their career. By leveraging insights from Cognitive Load Theory, Retrieval Practice, Spacing and Interleaving, you can create an optimal learning environment for your students.

These strategies allow you to design lessons and assessments that cater to the limitations of working memory, promote deep learning and improve long-term retention of knowledge. By incorporating these evidence-based techniques into your teaching practice, you can empower your students to become more effective learners and achieve their full potential.


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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