Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom

Last week the EEF published their new evidence review ‘Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom: A Review of the Evidence’.  The review has sparked a flurry of excellent twitter discussion and blog posts, but three in particular really stand out:

The review is both timely and really well balanced.  Does it claim that the evidence around cognitive science provides a teaching silver bullet? No.  Does it claim that the evidence around cognitive science should be ignored by teachers? No.  What the review suggests is that whilst there is relatively good evidence that many of these approaches work in controlled ‘lab’ conditions, the evidence around applying these cognitive science approaches in the classroom is more limited.  

“Principles from cognitive science are neither myths to be discounted, nor silver bullets that directly translate into accelerated progress”.

“Findings from the lab do not always translate into effective teaching and learning in the classroom and they may not apply across different pupil age groups, subject areas and school contexts”.

Clearly more work needs to be done in terms of translating this to classroom settings .  This is an exciting challenge for teachers and leaders over the coming years. – how do we mobilise this research evidence into best bets for the classroom? 

The review shares some useful examples of how teachers have been doing this, which we’ve collated in this blog.

Spaced Learning

What it is:

Spaced practice (also referred to as spaced learning, distributed practice, distributed learning, and the spacing effect) applies the principle that material is more easily learnt when broken apart by intervals of time. 

Mobilisation Examples:

  • After teaching her class a new word, Ms Begum always makes a note of when she will revisit the word in other lessons throughout the coming week. Whether asking pupils to recall the definition of the word or designing tasks in which they must apply it in a new context, Ms Begum always ensures the word is returned to as this can help to embed it in pupils’ long-term memory.
  • In his Year 4 class Mr Coales regularly breaks up the teaching of key concepts in science with other activities that distract pupils from what they have been learning. For example, after teaching his class about the different components of flowering plants (roots, stem or trunk, leaves, and flowers), Mr Coales supports his class to revise their previous topic on forces for ten minutes.


What it is:

Interleaving involves sequencing tasks so that learning material is interspersed with slightly (but not completely) different content or activities, as opposed to undertaking tasks through a blocked and consecutive approach.

Mobilisation example:

  • When teaching fractions to his class, Mr Hodiak likes to test his pupils as this can help to identify areas for improvement and gaps in understanding. To ensure that his pupils have to think hard about how to solve fractions, Mr Hodiak interleaves problems with different numerators and denominators. Mr Hodiak thinks that by requiring his pupils to identify the subtle differences between these varied types of problems, he can embed learning and improve pupils’ ability to select appropriate strategies when solving fractions in the future.

Retrieval Practice

What it is:

Retrieval practice describes the process of recalling information from memory with little or minimal prompting. 

Mobilisation Example:

  • At the beginning of German class, Mrs Key asks the class to think back to their learning from the previous week and to list as many of the German words for animals as they can on a sheet in front of them.

Managing Cognitive Load

What it is:

A key challenge for educators is that working memory is limited. There are lots of things that can cause it to be overwhelmed. An example is when problem solving learners might be presented with a large amount of complex information and asked to follow a series of problem-solving steps. Where a student has limited prior knowledge committed to their long-term memory this might lead to their working memory being overwhelmed, impairing learning. The aim of strategies that focus on managing cognitive load is not to minimise cognitive load but to optimise it—minimising unnecessary load and ensuring that working memory remains focused on the information that is being taught.

Mobilisation Examples:

  • When teaching her class about titration calculations, Dr Turner demonstrates how to organise the information in a question within a grid format. This breaks down the steps involved in the overall calculation, helping to ensure pupils complete each step in the correct order. Dr Turner always models how to use the grid correctly when teaching it to pupils.
  • Whilst reading aloud to class, Mrs Walker chunks the sections of reading into manageable lengths and stops to explain difficult concepts to the class. The students were supported, through the use of a structured worksheet, to identify key terms, organise ideas from the text in sequence, and to identify themes and the main ideas in the text.
  • When learning quadratic equations, pupils are given partial information, which means they must work together to solve the problem. Equation values are unpacked to distribute them among the pupils (for example, for -15×2 , each member would receive -5×2 ). Rather than holding all pieces of information in their head, group members depend on others’ information to solve the problem.

Working with Schemas

What it is:

Schemas (sometimes referred to as mental models, scripts, or frames) are structures that organise knowledge in the mind. When learning, the mind connects new information with pre-existing knowledge, skills, and concepts thereby developing existing schemas.

Mobilisation Example:

  • After studying a text with her class, Ms Howarth uses her knowledge of the text and experience teaching the same text with other classes to create knowledge organisers that collate the most crucial foundational concepts and knowledge onto a single A4 page. These resources help pupils make links between ideas and concepts, often grouping information by big overarching themes from the text, key quotes with annotations on language devices, and relevant information on the social and historical context in which the text was written.

Cognitive theory of multimedia learning

What it is:

Dual coding theory is based on the theory that working memory has two distinct components, one that deals with visual and spatial information and another that deals with auditory information. By presenting content in multiple formats, it is possible that teachers can appeal to both subsystems of the working memory, which subsequently strengthens learning.

Mobilisation Examples:

  • When learning about circuits in science, pupils are provided with images at different levels of abstraction. Sometimes these include pictures of actual lights, while at other times they use the formal symbols for them.  
  • When learning about the water cycle, pupils are presented with diagrams with labels and process information that illustrate the different steps of the cycle. Evaporation is shown through an illustration of water rising from the sea to clouds, while a ray from the sun shines onto the sea. An arrow illustrates the direction of travel and a note explains that the evaporation is caused by heat from the sun’s energy and occurs in water in lakes, rivers, oceans, and on land.
  • When doing calculation tasks in maths, pupils are taught to use the mental image of an abacus to visualise the way the calculation takes place. As they complete sums, they imagine their mental abacus and use it to support their calculations.

Embodied Learning and Physical factors

What it is:

Embodied learning and physical factors refer to strategies that engage and make use of movement and the body to support effective learning. 

Mobilisation Example:

  • When teaching equations, the teacher uses hand gestures when referring to different sides of the equation. When saying the word ‘one side’, the teacher sweeps her hand back forth beneath the left half of the equation. When the teacher says ‘the other side’, she sweeps her right hand back and forth below the right half of the equation.

Shaun Allison

Director of Durrington Research School

Next year, James Crane & Ben Crockett will be leading a training programme, exploring the approaches in this blog.  Details and registration here.

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