Brain-Based Learning

6 Evidence-Based Instructional Practices Drawn From Cognitive Science

These research-backed strategies have the capacity to help students learn and retain more information.

January 16, 2024
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No parent sends their child to school to develop stress, experience anxiety, or lose their self-esteem. Every educator aspires for their students to learn what they are being taught. Yet, both teachers and students, albeit for different reasons, had to teach themselves to learn. This is not a criticism of our education but instead a nod of understanding. More can be done to ensure that each student and teacher is set up to succeed. This is inclusive of improving each student’s ability to learn and curiosity for learning rather than ranking them against each other or attributing their struggles to poor habits.

Successful educators constantly refine how they teach by utilizing evidence-based instructional practices and scientific discoveries about learning.

Learning is complex. It depends on a myriad of cognitive skills, emotions, and behaviors alongside prior knowledge. Fortunately, the field of cognitive science has accumulated a rich body of evidence of how we learn (science of learning) and how to teach to promote learning (science of teaching). Unfortunately, this mountain of evidence remains mostly trapped within academia, siloed from professional development, and primarily absent from where it is needed most: in our classrooms. Here are some tips for applying this knowledge in your classroom.

6 Strategies to Promote Learning based on cognitive science

1. Prime the brain for learning. While tests are commonly used to measure performance, they are also powerful tools to foster learning. What does the science of learning say about testing before we even teach the material? It helps students learn the material better because it signals to their brains what is important and forthcoming. This is referred to as priming. Look for opportunities to incorporate priming questions into already-established classroom routines.

2. Activate your students’ attentional filter. Learning requires “active processing” because information is processed and remembered only if it makes it through our attentional filters. The learner must then choose what pieces of information to bring into their working memory, to actively engage with that material and be able to learn it.

Realize that only a fraction of what you teach is actively being processed, and more information is processed when you engage students with the material you are teaching. Capture your students’ attention with prediction, purposeful novelty, and cues that denote importance.

3. Preteach jargon to avoid cognitive overload. Teaching often involves new terms. Cognitive multimedia theory teaches us that students learn better when the terms are introduced in advance of the content. This helps avoid cognitive overload, which occurs when new content is paired with new terms that prevent the student from effectively grasping both simultaneously. Consider using flash cards at the start of a unit instead of waiting until the end.

4. Incorporate frequent, spaced opportunities to retrieve information and skills. We begin forgetting what we’ve learned shortly after we learn it. The forgetting curve illustrates how learned information decays over time. We can use retrieval practice to combat forgetting and form reliable learning.

Retrieval practice is pulling a stored memory out of long-term memory into working memory for continued processing and use. Spacing refers to the strategic use of delays across learning trials. It works because it requires extra cognitive effort to recall material and creates multiple retrieval routes to aid remembering. Ask questions from last year, last month, and last week.

5. Alternate between subjects after moderate review of one. We are used to working in a blocked fashion. Our textbooks are designed this way. We study this way by cramming, and we often teach this way by introducing material sequentially; these methods aren’t as helpful to learning. Interleaving challenges the conventional approach to teaching and learning with a far more effective approach. As you might suspect, it requires the opposite.

When tasks or skills are mixed within a single class period or study session, the brain must work harder, and memory associations are strengthened. The key here is alternating after moderate review; avoid switching too often. How much is too often? There is no formula that is universally appropriate across age groups, subject matter, and cognitive profiles. Generally speaking, consider interleaving no more than two to three topics per session and switching topics roughly every 15–20 minutes.

6. Prompt students to actively generate information. Students are often tasked with answering questions that can be found in the text or other content provided. Elaboration, another type of retrieval, asks students to look beyond what is provided by describing using many details. It works by activating and making connections to prior knowledge. Create opportunities for students to make connections between different ideas and concepts and consider what makes them similar or different.

These strategies only scratch the surface of the daunting tasks that many teachers and students have faced and continue to face today. By studying cognitive science more closely, teachers can become experts on how to teach (science of learning) and on what they teach (academic content). The science of learning supports the important work that is already being done by so many.

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