Teach to the brain's natural strengths.
A teacher’s job is to inspire the cognitive operations that result in learning that lasts a lifetime and transfers to novel situations. But what are these mysterious “cognitive operations,” and how do we link them to classroom activities? I’m glad you asked! I wrote a book to help answer these questions.
Why Do Educators Need Cognitive Science?
Imagine spending your whole life trying to solve an insanely complicated problem. You try everything you can think of. You seem to be making incremental progress, but it’s slow. While telling a colleague about your problem, he tells you there’s a whole field dedicated to addressing the same problem. What would you do? Drop everything and find out what that field is, right?
Suppose the problem you’ve been trying to solve is teaching kids how to become critical thinkers and problem solvers. What is this field that has been working on the same problem? The field is called cognitive science, and over the past sixty years, it has made tremendous strides in understanding how people learn. Unfortunately, few people know what cognitive science is, let alone how it might impact day-to-day classroom instruction.
Cognitive science isn’t well represented in most education programs. In a recent review of teacher-training textbooks, investigators found that six foundational findings from cognitive science weren't even included in half the textbooks! When these six seminal findings were mentioned, they were only given a few sentences of coverage, instead of the in-depth discussion needed to implement them in the classroom.
I first noticed this gap between what teachers are taught and what they are expected to do when I was in grad school. One of my mentors, the late Dr. Robert Glaser, who was a pioneer in the science of student testing, explained that there should be a virtuous feedback loop between psychological research and educational practice. In other words, cognitive science should inform instruction, and education should then inspire new research questions.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Dr. Glaser’s insight put me on a path to write Cognitive Science for Educators: Practical Suggestions for an Evidence-Based Classroom. I wanted to close the gap between what was known in the laboratory and what is practiced in the classroom. Here are two cognitive science principles and direct classroom applications that all teachers should know.
Locked & Loaded: Cognitive Load in the Classroom
One concept that might help educators in planning their lessons is an understanding of the concept of “cognitive load,” which builds on the idea of working memory. Working memory is a memory store that is severely limited in the number of unrelated items it can hold onto at any given moment (e.g., between 5 – 9 items).
Moreover, these items will decay at an astonishing rate. Unless they are actively rehearsed, they are dropped from memory in about 30 seconds. Cognitive load, then, is about designing curriculum so that students’ working memory is not overwhelmed when learning something new.
Fade to Black: Backwards Faded Examples
One of the implications of cognitive load in mathematics is that teachers should assign worked examples to study instead of throwing students into solving problems right away. Why is that the case? Because when you are tasked with solving a brand new problem type, working memory is at capacity with all the symbols needed to solve the problem. It is difficult to allocate any additional resources to learning because they are working on the mechanics of solving the problem. By scaffolding problems, students have the cognitive space to master concepts and skills in manageable chunks.
Another effective scaffolding design is a “backwards faded example.” Examples are designed in such a way that the student is required to complete the last step. Then, the next example requires students to complete the last two steps, and so on. Eventually, students autonomously solve the problem.
The same concept applies to other subjects as well. In world languages classes, cloze readings, in which students need to fill in missing words or phrases in passages, are common exercises that lessen the cognitive load. A backwards faded example could look like asking students to complete a sentence, such as, “Even though I was hungry…” in the target language.
Time to Get Meta: Metacognition
Another topic that comes up in my book is the concept of metacognition, which is “knowledge about thinking” or “thinking about thinking.” When you ask yourself, “Does that make sense?” or “Do I know that?,” you are engaging in metacognition.
Unfortunately for students who struggle, metacognitive questions are badly calibrated with what they don’t know. Often, that’s because they confuse familiarity with understanding. For example, suppose a student believes that rereading their notes is a good way to study. On the second (or third) pass, they might get the sense that they know it because it’s familiar. That feeling tricks them into thinking they know it. But the true test is to have them explain the material to someone else.
“Pop Quiz, Hot Shot!“ —Howard Payne, Speed (1994)
You can help your students overcome this “illusion of knowing” by doing a couple of things. First, you can get them into groups and have them explain to each other.
You can also help students get into the habit of asking themselves, “Does that make sense?” This is a great “habit of mind” because often the answer is (and should be) no!
Finally, you can use low/no-stakes quizzes to help students gauge what they understand. After all, metacognition is a skill that can be developed.
As educators leverage learning science principles in the classroom, students will make more efficient use of their ultimate learning tool: their brain. You can learn more about these and other principles in my book, Cognitive Science for Educators: Practical Suggestions for an Evidence-Based Classroom.
Thanks for reading!
Dr. Bob joined Carnegie Learning in 2009 as a Cognitive Scientist. He received his PhD in Cognitive Psychology in 2005 from the University of Pittsburgh under the direction of Dr. Michelene T.H. Chi, and he received additional training at the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center (PSLC) as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Kurt VanLehn and Dr. Timothy J. Nokes-Malach. In his spare time, Dr. Bob publishes a blog entitled Dr. Bob's Cog Blog, and is the author of the book Cognitive Science for Educators: Practical suggestions for an evidence-based classroom. The unifying theme that runs throughout all of these activities is a drive toward helping every student become an expert in a domain of her or his choice. When he isn’t thinking about cognitive science, which is rare, Dr. Bob enjoys long-distance running, mountain biking, and traveling with his wife.Explore more related to this author
As educators leverage learning science principles in the classroom, students will make more efficient use of their ultimate learning tool: their brain.
Dr. Bob Hausmann