While there have been many setbacks in the education sphere over the past 18 months, there have also been some really encouraging steps forward that we should recognise. Whether that be in education technologies, creating closer school communities or developing a better understanding of the best ways to learn, searching for the optimum environment for children’s learning has not stood still during the pandemic.

Research into evidenced-based ways of teaching are central to this drive forward in the education sphere. One development at the forefront of this is cognitive science which has become an increasingly important part of how teaching is thought about. Cognitive science is, in basic terms, the study of how the brain functions and how it solves the problems it faces on a daily basis. Clearer understandings of this process have a direct impact on the classroom as they lead to techniques being developed to maximise learning processes. Cognitive science is now taught to Early Career Teachers to give them an increased understanding of memory and cognitive load, and OFSTED also draw significantly on cognitive science in their framework. A key goal of education is the ability to transfer previous knowledge to solve new problems and create new learning. Incorporating cognitive science into the classroom can give children these skills.

Cognitive GCSE Learning

During the summer the Education Endowment Foundation published a report that showed there has been an increase in the use of cognitive science to inform approaches in the classroom. The EEF’s investigation into whether these approaches are effective found that most of the strategies they reviewed had positively affected rates of learning and retention of information. These strategies used basic cognitive principles; more complex applied principles of cognitive science need a lot more research and careful implementation.

Cognitive science is still a relatively new field of study, especially in relation to practical application, so the expectation of incorporating it into the classroom can seem overwhelming for both experienced and newly qualified teachers. The EEF study found that incorrect implementation of techniques using cognitive principles could be more damaging than not implementing them at all, so it is important that teachers are confident in their aims before they introduce techniques to their class. It is really important to get it right!

GCSEPod have teamed up with Impact Wales who provide professional learning for teachers that focuses on cognitive research. They help schools and teachers to translate research into effective practice in the classroom. Impact Wales have lots of great resources which are really useful in understanding how learning actually happens.

With what we have learnt from Impact Wales, here are our top tips for using cognitive principles in the classroom:

1. Link new material to prior learning

The learning process is a constant reorganisation of prior knowledge. In order to retain information, the long-term memory needs to be activated to ease the processes in the working memory. Due to how the working memory works, new information will not be able to be stored for more than 10 to 15 seconds. Information will only be transferred to the long-term memory if it is rehearsed or linked to prior learning. The most effective way to do this is to link new information to prior learning. Planning lessons properly is therefore really important in order to ensure that these links can develop from one lesson to the next. These connections build up a web of knowledge – the more a student knows the more details can be picked up.

2. Keep the focus on the ‘to be learnt’ content

When setting out any lesson plans you should ask yourself – ‘What is the goal you want your class to achieve?’ and ‘How will they get there?’. It is important that you correctly identify the level of difficulty your class are working at. If you set tasks which are too hard the processing capacity of the brain will be reduced as links to prior learning will not be made which means things could be misremembered. But tasks should require some level of challenge so that students can properly engage with them and embed them in their memory. Once you have worked this out you must communicate it clearly to the class so they too can understand the goals of the lesson. By providing short and specific goals, accompanied by good feedback, students will be regularly reminded of what is expected of them which will hopefully keep them focused and on track.

3. Manage students’ cognitive load

It is really important not to overload students with information as they will not be able to retain it. Cognitive overload could lead to task abandonment, incomplete recall and poor progress as the brain will incorrectly process information. In order to not overload the brain information could be put into chunks, bound by connections, to make it easier to recall. Redundant information should be stripped back and screens should not be crammed with words as it will reduce the ability to process. Dual coding information can also be useful as by using words and pictures you are engaging two different parts of the brain, making processing easier.

4. Find ways to keep focus and engagement

In order to retain information students must be fully focused and engaged with the content. Multi-tasking is a myth, and it should be re-enforced to students that cognitive control is a skill which needs to be developed. To achieve this, distractions should be identified and limited. When completing homework this could be mean placing devices out of reach or sitting down to work in a quiet place. In the classroom, activities which promote engagement can consist of setting tasks which need immediate answers or teamwork. Exercises such as using mini whiteboards to show answers, quiz competitions or a ‘Think Pair Share’ activity. Students should be encouraged to set their own goals, no matter how big or small, so they are always working to target. When that target it reached don’t be afraid to reward your students.

5. Leave time gaps in revision to deepen learning

Leaving gaps in between content being addressed helps to deepen learning. Retrieval of information makes students articulate and elaborate on their ideas. This helps them really understand them and make links to other things they have learnt. A great way to do this is by using the Leitner Flashcard technique.

When introducing new techniques or theories to the classroom, it can seem like teachers are being overloaded which is of course daunting. No one is expecting teachers to fully understand the complexities of cognitive science, but incorporating its basic principles into the classroom can make a big difference when it comes to exams and the ability to process new information. There are lots of great resources available to make this much less intimidating. You can find out more about Impact Wales’ work here.

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