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Are students getting better at using Cognitive Science?

Are students getting better at using Cognitive Science?

4 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

Whisper it quietly and cautiously, but the tide is turning. Education is undoubtedly becoming more evidence-informed. But is Cognitive Science research around Retrieval Practice, Spacing, Cognitive Load Theory and Metacognition trickling down from what teachers do in the classroom, to how students study when they are by themselves?

A rocky landscape

There is a wealth of previous Cognitive Science research that has found when students get to make their own decisions about how to learn best, they make some dubious decisions. This includes preferring:

  • Re-reading over retrieval
  • Cramming over Spacing
  • Listening to music when studying

This can all be rather frustrating, as it suggests that when given a choice, students choose strategies that they like and prefer, as opposed to ones that are more efficient and effective. If you want to read some of the research into any of the above three (and a bonus one), check out our blog, “4 strategies students like that are not actually good for them”.

Have we turned the corner?

So, has anything changed on the ground in the last few years? Well, recent evidence suggests more and more teachers are having discussions with their colleagues about Cognitive Science. This increase includes professional dialogue around the likes Rosenshine’s Principles and Retrieval Practice, as seen in this graph from Teacher Tapp:

Screenshot 2022-11-24 at 16.46.57

What does the latest research say?

We are now seeing green shoots when it comes to student study habits. Encouragingly, a really recent study has found that students may be becoming more knowledgeable about the advantages of self-testing over re-reading than we thought.

The soon-to-be-published paper argues that students’ judgement of learning strategies is derived from two types of cues:

  1.  Theory-based cues – These refer to students’ knowledge, which often comes from previous teaching material such as lessons or textbooks.
  2.  Experience-based cues – These involve students’ practical experiences.

One of the key aspects of Retrieval Practice is that it draws attention to gaps in knowledge, which students tend to associate with unsuccessful learning. It is therefore no surprise that they would favour re-reading and rate Retrieval Practice as less effective. The researchers argue that drawing on both of the above gives students a firmer foundation for making a better judgement call.

In this study, the researchers asked students to rate the efficacy of both re-reading and Retrieval Practice after imagining themselves using both strategies – not after actually trying them out. They found that students correctly rated Retrieval Practice to be more effective for learning than re-reading, suggesting that they are more knowledgeable about the effectiveness of different learning strategies than previously thought.

It may be a change in research design that led to this finding. However, another possibility could also be that students may be getting better at picking out effective strategies due to the increase in awareness of the Science of Learning over the last decade. Most of the previous research was done in the early 2010s, whereas now more teachers are familiar with cognitive science principles.

While we can’t be sure of the reason for this shift in findings, we’ve seen the rise of evidence-based Teaching & Learning strategies in schools first-hand. We at InnerDrive have spent the last decade contributing to it through resources (such as the blog you’re reading right now!) and delivering student and Teacher CPD workshops over the world. We’ve heard from countless teachers about the impact this has had in their school – and the world of education is definitely on an exciting path.

Help your students optimise their memory, develop their metacognitive skills, and tackle challenges more effectively.

How to improve the sustainability of Retrieval Practice

So, what do these findings mean in practice?

Even though students know that Retrieval Practice is best for their learning, they often settle for alternative strategies that require less effort (e.g., re-reading). This poses a considerable challenge for teachers who see the decisions students make around their studies become more important to their academic achievement as they progress through their school career.

This means that you need to ensure Retrieval Practice is sustainable, so your students don’t turn back to ineffective strategies. Here are two great ways you can do this…

Build in success

One of Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction is to ensure a high success rate. Being able to refer to a bank of previous positive outcomes elicited from Retrieval Practice boosts students’ motivation to keep going with this strategy for learning. The best way to do this is to find a sweet spot for your questions: not so challenging that your students consistently struggle to answer them, but not so easy that they get complacent and get no benefit from them.

Foster a psychologically safe classroom 

A psychologically safe classroom is one where students believe that they can make mistakes and ask for help without being humiliated by teachers and peers. This is important as it encourages your student to participate in more Retrieval Practice activities in the classroom (e.g., answering your questions). 

You can create a psychologically safe environment by forming a classroom community where your students feel that they belong and that their contribution is valued.

Final thoughts

The evidence suggests that things are getting better, both with students and teachers in Cognitive Science. But there is a long way to go. Knowing is one thing, but we also have to help students form good study habits. This way it becomes embedded. Overall, we are really excited to see this research come out and get a view of how far the education world has come in the last decade. We can’t wait to see where it goes next.

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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