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Notes from the field: 5 Cognitive Science strategies for struggling students

Notes from the field: 5 Cognitive Science strategies for struggling students

4 min read
  • The science of learning

We have the pleasure and privilege of working with schools and colleges all over the UK and, in increasing cases, internationally. Being able to witness the whole education landscape is a truly fascinating eye-opener.

During our Teacher CPD workshops, we put a real emphasis on discussing what research and best-practice strategies may look like for delegates’ specific school/college and classroom situation. The academic year may have only just started, but we’ve already encountered too many great ideas not to share.

So, keep reading for some fascinating tips and insight from fellow educators…

What is the aim of school staff CPD?

There are a lot of experts in each school or college, who learnt from years of experience combined with subject and pedagogical knowledge. Recent research findings can help inform judgement, but never replace it.

Essentially, teacher CPD is not about telling people what to do. It is about providing an update from research and a space where school staff can discuss and debate which parts (if any) they can apply and adapt to benefit their day-to-day practice.

Over the past few weeks, we have spoken to thousands of teachers during school staff CPD and learnt a lot from them. So, here are some of the most interesting points and strategies they have shared with us about applying findings from Cognitive Science in practice – especially to support struggling students…

1. Pre-Questions

    This is when students are asked questions before being taught the content. It is sometimes also referred to as “pre-testing”. Evidence suggests that Pre-Questions improve learning by increasing attention, curiosity, as well as driving decisions about what to study between lessons.

    One SENDCo told us that they thought this would be brilliant for students who have low self-esteem, as it could help them see and compare what they didn’t know at the start of the lesson vs what they have learnt by the end of it.

    2. Dual Coding

    Dual-coding theory states that combining words and pictures increases the likelihood of remembering the content, because it provides two ways of engaging with the content. There are of course some caveats to this strategy: overdoing it can lead to cluttered design, and non-congruent words and pictures can cause more confusion than learning. You can find out more about this on our blog, 6 common Dual Coding mistakes.

    One English teacher told us that he thought it is a brilliant strategy when introducing new vocabulary. When asked for an example, he said that students often hadn’t heard of the word “regicide” before; but when accompanied by a picture of a crown being stabbed, it stuck for his students.

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

    3. Multiple-choice questions

    So many subjects told us about how they used this as a retrieval activity, with the age range of students spanning from infant school all the way through to adult learners in college. This makes sense as they are quick to ask, quick to answer, and quick to mark. They can also reveal group misconceptions.

    We also had many teachers tell us that they loved the sound of Blake Harvard’s “Reverse-Engineered Multiple-Choice Questions” for students who need an extension type task, which allows all students to receive the same initial task.

    For more tips to make the best of this strategy in your classroom, check out our blog + infographic combo on how to design the perfect Multiple-Choice test.

    4. Cold Calling

    Recent research suggests that students who think a lot about the content in a lesson but do not vocally participate may be missing out on a significant learning gain. Likewise, other recent research suggests that Cold-Calling in a warm way can help students feel a sense of belonging to the group, as it shows that their opinions matter. It could be that this represents one of the best bets for improving what Doug Lemov calls “Participation Ratio”.

    5. Wait Times

    Avoiding the Superman Complex, which is where you fly in to save the struggling student by providing the right answer, can be a challenge. A number of learning support assistants told us that finding the balance between supporting but not spoon-feeding students is the ultimate challenge of their job. Struggle for the sake of struggle often has little to no value, but struggle that would lead to successfully retrieving an answer if the student was given just a few more seconds can be incredibly beneficial.

    A number of learning support assistants also commented to the rest of the staff that SEND doesn’t equal low ability. Some students just need longer to process the question, retrieve the answer and then longer still to be able to articulate it. For these students, Wait Times can be transformational to their learning.

    Final thoughts

    Discussions with staff about what they do well and which tweaks they feel will be beneficial for their practice serves multiple purposes. It improves the quality of ideas, ensures autonomy and increases buy-in to using research findings.

    Cognitive Science-informed strategies are arguably most effective for struggling students. And the people who know those students best (the people who teach them every day) are uniquely placed to figure out what those strategies should look like. Research can provide the overarching principles, but it can never provide the details. For that, you need the brilliant folks in the room. And to all of you who we have had the pleasure of working with so far this year, we salute you!


    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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