The learning mystery
If we could see thinking and learning, what would they look like? How would we tell when they have happened, and how could we make them happen faster next time? These are just some of the questions teachers grapple with. For the most part, we do not ever get to see actual cogs turning, or not, and it is not an exact science.
Learning Science, as a subject is a particular challenge for memory, and I think this is why cognitive science principles feature so strongly in my teaching. Biology consists of many definitions that students must understand if they wish to understand the questions and score marks in their answers. Chemistry and Physics also rely on students remembering essential information and how to proceed with calculations.
Science is a mountain of content compared to many other subjects, which challenges all students. Unlocking our brain’s unlimited long-term memory most efficiently would help us to conquer this challenge. Understanding and helping our students do this could open the best ways for them to work smarter, not harder.
What is cognitive science?
Cognitive science is a joint discipline between psychology and neuroscience, helping teachers understand how to improve learning. By understanding how our brains remember and retrieve information, we can better prepare our students to remember the core information and successfully extract it from their memory on exam day.
The current reformed GCSE and A-level assessments are more summative (all at the end of the 2/3 year of schooling), there is a considerable memory challenge ahead of our students. In Science, there can be the opportunity to achieve three GCSEs, but with that comes the challenge of remembering three times the amount of information as some other subjects. Cognitive science offers some fundamental principles that might boost our student’s memory and ensure they are better able to recall that vital information.
So what are the fundamental tips that cognitive science can offer us about learning?
What are the fundamental principles?
Below I have detailed some fundamental principles of cognitive science and how they can be applied to learning my subject, science. However, they are not just for science and can be used for any topic where it is essential to remember and recall key factual information. I always prompt my students to use these fundamental principles in their revision.
Retrieval practice and spaced learning
|This strategy requires learners to retrieve information from different subjects in a memory test. Write a question on one side and the answer on the other side. Flashcards are an excellent source of retrieval practice, and mixing up the topics can help stretch the brain.
Websites such as Quizlet have stores of pre-made flashcards from other students but building a custom set from difficult exam questions can be most effective.
Dual Coding and Cognitive load
|This is often something teachers delivering information have to be mindful of. The brain has limited short-term working memory and concentration. Using diagrams and tables can help to focus your brain on understanding your notes. But do not worry about making things unnecessarily detailed.
Keep any revision materials simple and leave out any doodles.
|Using exam practice questions is a crucial part of revision. The more students practise, the more they will remember. Any assessment material and questions will do. This isn’t about getting better at exams but better at relying on your memory to provide the correct answers.|
Do they work for every student?
Having outlined some fundamental concepts of cognitive science I teach my students, I feel I must provide a caveat. These techniques are mainly effective for subjects such as science, where a large amount of knowledge retention is required. In addition, they are helpful for information that students understand already. They do not replace other study methods such as Cornell notes and mind maps that are highly effective for understanding. I may write about them in the future.
Another issue students may find when using flashcards is that it can be rather painful and demotivating facing a pile of questions that you cannot answer. A lack of immediate success leads many students to insist that they ‘don’t work’ or don’t match their ‘learning style’. It isn’t that the retrieval practice isn’t working, but that we need to help our students to increas
e their resilience. Working with flashcards that repeatedly ask you questions you do not know the answer to is challenging, and it might take a few attempts to improve. I also reassure my students that they will get better, and it is getting better at something that gives us the motivation to continue.
What are the take-homes for tutors and students?
I have tried to think about three tips I would give to tutors and students to improve their learning of factual-based subjects. I hope I have them covered below:
- Use regular low-stakes testing such as quizzes, flashcards, or practice assessment material to improve memory retrieval.
- Make sure any revision materials do not have extraneous information that might distract or overload. Flashcards should have short answers to the prompt questions, so working memory is not overloaded.
- Be kind to yourself. Memories can take a long time to stick as the brain wants to be efficient and not waste resources remembering things that are not important. You will remember, it just takes lots of practice – retrieval practice.
A bit about the author, Mike T:
Mike is a qualified teacher, examiner, and postgraduate researcher working in Cheshire. He has been teaching for eight years and tutoring for slightly longer. He enjoys being able to diagnose the issues students have with their studies and then working with them to help solve these problems.
Every student is a unique individual with different needs. Mike normally likes to meet initially to go over an exam paper and discuss strengths and areas for improvement. From there he builds an individual learning plan with short achievable targets. This gradually builds a measurable path of success and improve confidence through the study sessions.