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A beginner's guide to Cognitive Science

A beginner’s guide to Cognitive Science

5 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed

There’s been a real boom of interest in the education world about cognitive science, which is a very broad discipline within psychology. It covers many processes, including higher order functions and executive processes such as thinking, memory, attention, and word processing. 

Cognitive science forms the basis for many other areas of interest in psychology such as metacognition. So what exactly is cognitive science and where did it come from? Let’s take a closer look at how it’s relevant to teachers and students today…

What is Cognitive Science?

Cognitive science is the study of cognition, which refers to the mental processes involved with acquiring and understanding information. This can include: 

  • Perceiving 
  • Remembering 
  • Reasoning 
  • Judging 
  • Imagining 
  • Problem solving 

Cognitive science aims to explain these mental processes and allows us to understand the mind. It’s an interdisciplinary study, combining aspects of psychology, philosophy, linguistics, neuroscience, and even computer science.

But how did cognitive science originate? And how are schools using principles from cognitive science in the classroom?

A brief history of Cognitive Science

Psychology is a relatively young discipline. Wilhelm Wundt opened the first institute of Experimental Psychology in 1879, with many agreeing that the opening of this institution marked the beginning of what we know today as modern psychology. 

At the very beginning, around the 1890s, psychological researchers and scientists began to identify the roles of different mental processes, outlining what they do. For example, explaining the feeling of pain as a result of a bodily injury. This is known as functionalism, one of the earliest schools of thought in psychology. It focused on the function of behaviours in the world. 

Then, the focus of psychology moved more in the direction of understanding behaviour. In the 1910s, psychological researchers and scientists hypothesised that we learn behaviours through interactions with the environment, through a process known as conditioning. For example, rewarding children at the end of the week for good behaviour throughout the week teaches students to be well-behaved. This is known as behaviourism

By the 1950s, the science of psychology developed even further. Scientists emphasised the idea that the human mind is more complex, and it does more than just responding to the environment. They became more aware of the mechanisms underlaying mental processes, aiming to explain how they worked. For example, instead of just focusing on observable behaviour such as speaking and facial expressions, cognitive science started to explain unobservable behavioural, such as thinking and emotions. 

What is Cognitive Science today? And what does it cover?

Cognitive science today covers a very broad range of topics. Many higher order processes and executive functions fall under the umbrella of cognitive science. In relation to education and learning, here are some of the concepts that cognitive science has explained…


Some of the earliest research in cognitive science began to explain why we forget things. In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus suggested the Spacing Effect, where the brain forgets large amounts of information if we only learn something once. 


Have you ever wondered how you are able to recognise what one person is saying when others are speaking at the same time? Well, in 1953, Colin Cherry explained that the brain is able to focus on particular voices and filter out other unhelpful sounds. This is known as the Cocktail Party Effect.

Word processing 

Cognitive science has also investigated whether word processing is automatic. The Stroop taskshowed us that it is difficult to name the colour of the ink used to print a word if the ink colour and the word are different, suggesting that word processing is automatic. Other research has suggested that word processing is not automatic, creating one of the biggest debates in cognitive science.

Other areas that cognitive science has researched include perception, cognitive load and motivation and reward.

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How can schools use Cognitive Science?

Cognitive science is being used more and more to inform interventions, practice and policy in schools.Research related to memory, cognitive load and motivation and reward is of particular interest to education. 

Schools are using a handful of strategies for effective learning, which have been derived from cognitive science. These include:

1. Spacing 

This is the idea that spacing out revision sessions when trying to learn information is more effective than revising all of the information in one go. 

Teachers can apply spacing principles to many aspects of learning. For example, spacing may occur across days, where students revise a concept or idea many times over the course of one week, or a couple of times over many weeks. Spacing may also occur within lessons, where students go over concepts or ideas many times during a single lesson, broken up by short time intervals.

 2. Interleaving

Interleaving is the process of mixing up revision topics instead of learning just one topic at a time. 

Interleaving is a highly effective learning strategy. Teachers can bring interleaving to the classroom by designing study plans for students using an interleaved strategy. This may encourage students to implement interleaving during their independent learning.

3. Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is a form of self-testing. It requires us to produce answers to questions that we are asked or that we ask ourselves. 

It has been repeatedly shown that retrieval practice is an extremely effective approach for learning and revising. Some ways to actually use retrieval practice in the classroom include:

  • Answering questions out loud
  • Making and using flashcards
  • Completing past papers

4. Dual Coding 

Dual coding is the process of blending both words and pictures while learning. This allows us to retain information in two different ways, resulting in better memory. 

There are many ways to use dual coding in the classroom, including: 

  • Making posters 
  • Using word diagrams 
  • Creating drawings

5. Managing cognitive load 

Cognitive Load Theory highlights the limited capacity of working memory. The theory suggests that we can only hold a certain amount of information in our working memory at one time, and processing too much information can lead to forgetting. 

Teachers can help students to manage cognitive load in a few ways. This includes: 

  • Providing students with worked examples – This provides students with a step-by-step breakdown of the answers to questions or problems, supporting them to understand concepts and ideas. Expecting students to problem solve with limited knowledge of topics may result in cognitive overload.
  • Encourage group work – Teamwork and student collaboration when learning may reduce cognitive load
  • Provide cues for students – Giving instructions, clear explanations and motivation to students may support them when problem solving and reduce cognitive load. 

Final thoughts

Cognitive science is a very broad area of study, aiming to explain how higher order mental processes such attention, memory and word processing work.

Teaching & Learning techniques you’ve been hearing about, such as spacing, interleaving, retrieval practice, dual coding and managing cognitive load are all based on research investigating the mental processes involved with cognitive science.

Just like many other areas of psychology, cognitive science allows us to understand the mind and how we learn and its principles can be applied in the classroom to help students learn in a more efficientand effective way.

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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