Pedagogical Implications of Cognitive Science Research

Spring 2006

By John Murray

Information and knowledge are growing more rapidly today than ever before in the history of humankind. The meaning of "knowing" has changed from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it. The incredible magnitude of human knowledge makes its coverage by education an impossibility; rather, the goal of education is better viewed as helping students develop the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed to acquire the knowledge that permits people to think productively about mathematics, history, social issues, science, and the arts. Fundamental understanding of disciplines, including how to ask meaningful questions about different subjects, contributes to a better understanding of principles of learning that can assist students in becoming self-sustaining, lifelong learners.

Recent research emanating from cognitive science on how people learn, remember, and think about information has important implications for all educators, as it informs different ways to help students not just memorize facts, but also understand what they study and be able to use it in a variety of contexts. It points to the importance of revisiting what we teach, how we teach, and how we assess student learning. Underlying this research, are the following basic assumptions:

  • Meaning is constructed by learners, not received from the environment.
  • Prior knowledge and beliefs significantly impact the meanings that people construct.
  • People are actively involved in their own learning.

This Field Guide summarizes the most relevant aspects of this research, and discusses specific teaching strategies emerging from it.

Attention and Working Memory

Information that is attended to is processed in a portion of memory called working memory (also called short-term memory). Working memory is the "thinking" part of the memory system and has a limited capacity of about seven units of information (Ormrod, 2004). Teachers can help students hold more information in working memory by teaching them how to group information into chunks (remember it is seven units ), rather than holding items separately. For example, if students are taught to group anatomical structures by the organ system they are a part of, they can hold dozens of structures in working memory instead of only seven (Baddeley, 1999,) Another characteristic of working memory is that, unless it is kept alive by repeating it (called maintenance rehearsal), or processing it further, information held in working memory will only last between five and twenty seconds (Jensen, 1998).

Teachers need to capture attention in order to keep information in working memory long enough to be processed. Capturing and keeping that attention, every day, in every class, can be quite a challenge. Here are some strategies teachers can use to help students attend to relevant tasks and information:

  • Ask questions. Posing questions to the class, and specific students, can help students attend to pertinent information and begin to process it (Bybee, 2002;Grabe, 1986). In addition to verbal responses, have students write their responses before sharing their thoughts with a small group or the entire class. This ensures that all students, not just few, are attending to the question.
  • Vary presentation styles and topics. Covering similar topics in identical ways day after day is a sure prescription for student boredom and inattention. Because research shows that novelty draws people's attention, employ a variety of teaching methods, both within a specific class period and between classes, and vary your subject matter (Good and Brophy, 1994;Ormrod, 2004).
  • Provide breaks and transitions. Because research demonstrates that it is very difficult for people to maintain attention for an extended period of time, a short break to stretch or transition to a different activity can help bring students' attention back on task (Pellegrini and Bjorklund, 1997).
  • Writing. As a transition from one activity or subject to another, have students write a question or summary in a journal about what was just learned or discussed. This encourages students to attend to activities, discussions and lectures while they are occurring and leads to additional processing of information after they are finished (National Research Council, 2000.)
  • Monitor student behaviors. Observing facial expressions, body posture, and where eyes are directed, will provide a clue about the attention of students. Attentive students typically direct their eyes toward the teacher, group task, or some other appropriate stimulus, and usually appear alert. Voice changes, using gestures, and moving around the class can help teachers attract and hold the attention of students.
  • Pace your classes.People can process only a limited amount of information at a time. Therefore, presenting information very quickly will make it impossible for them to attend to all of it. To help students attend, it is important to present material more slowly, pausing periodically for discussion or writing to allow processing.
  • Specify the main points. An outline given to students, or written on the board, tells students what is most important to attend to. Because research indicates they will not be able to attend to everything in a class period, this will help keep their focus on the most important material (Jensen, 1998).
  • Seat easily distracted students near you. Proximity to the teacher will help these students attend better.
  • Relate material to the world of the student. Connecting material to be learned to real world events and the typical interests of adolescents can both capture and maintain attention. Ask questions that encourage students to react and, or, empathize. The more meaning and relevance a topic has, the more it will capture and hold attention (National Research Council, 2000).

Information Processing and Long-Term Memory

Excellent teaching not only involves helping students attend to relevant information, and organize it in working memory, it also entails helping students process the information in a variety of ways so it will move into long-term memory. This section focuses on how teachers can help students effectively store, encode and retrieve information. Storage is the process of getting new information into long-term memory, encoding is the process of modifying information as it is stored, and retrieval involves finding information that has previously been stored.

Storage and Encoding

Instruction and assessment methods are best evaluated by examining how well they promote effective information storage and the ability to apply that information in various situations. They must go beyond emphasizing learning through mere repetition. Recent research suggests that the following methods are effective in helping students store, encode and apply information:

  • Connect instruction to the prior knowledge of the student. Because people have great difficulty learning and remembering information that is not connected with their existing knowledge, teachers should always consider the prior knowledge students possess about a topic when beginning instruction (National Research Council, 2000; Ormrod, 2004; Schneider, 1993). The job of the teacher at this stage is to be diagnostic so he/she can adapt to the students. This can be done by having students respond to a list of true-false statements (that include common misconceptions) at the beginning of a unit, having students construct concept maps early in a unit, and by asking questions during class or as part of a homework assignment. Instruction can then be connected to this prior knowledge through analogies that relate topics to situations and concepts that are familiar to the student, and by activating prior knowledge through questions, discussions and review before introducing other material.
  • Elaborative encoding. Students will learn and remember new information more effectively when teachers encourage them to expand on the new material based on what they already know. The job of the teacher is to show students how to do this, and then design multiple situations where students must elaborate on the material. Having students talk about a topic, either in a small group or full class discussion, asking them to write about it, having them construct concept maps, and asking them to apply the topic to a novel situation, forces them to mentally process the information. Teaching them to take notes, summarize sections, and write down questions when reading, also forces them to process the material. The key thing is to force them to process the material deeply, in a variety of ways, because research suggests that people learn more when they process material more deeply and work harder at encoding (Anderson, 1995; Bybee, 2002; Mestre and Cocking, 2000;Ormrod, 2004.)
  • Include time for processing during class. Students need time to process what they learn if they are to be able to move it into long-term memory and understand it deeply (National Research Council, 2000;Rowe, 1987).Build processing time into every class by having students do one or more of these activities: write in a journal what they understand about the current topic and what questions they have about it; think alone about a question, discuss it with a partner, then share ideas with the class; pretend their partner is a younger sibling and explain the concept just covered; write in a journal the three or four most important points just learned.
  • Connecting new ideas to each other. Students learn and remember better when new information is organized, when it is interconnected in some way (Mestre and Cocking, 2000;Novak, 1998). Teachers can facilitate student learning by showing students how material should be organized and interrelated. This can be done by providing outlines for lessons, presenting ideas in a logical sequence, using concept maps to diagram how concepts in a unit are interconnected, and identifying existing hierarchical relationships in the material. Research consistently shows that information is difficult to learn and remember when it is isolated from other material.
  • Distributed practice, repetition and review. Teachers often attempt to cover too much material too fast, and students often try to prepare for tests by cramming the night before the exam. Research demonstrates that people learn more effectively when they have significant time to process the new material (National Research Council, 2000; Ormrod, 2004; Rowe, 1987). Therefore, teachers should slow down so students have time to elaborate on new material, relate it to prior knowledge and connect it to other pieces of new information. Teachers must also encourage students to spread out their studying over time. One way this can be done is to give regular quizzes so that students are forced to spread out their studying prior to a test. In addition to distributing practice over time within a single unit, teachers should strive to cover the same material several times in different contexts over the course of the semester or year. This additional processing will lead to additional elaborations and better connections with other information, and this will lead to better storage. Furthermore, because the material has been learned in multiple contexts, students are more likely to be able to effectively transfer their knowledge to new situations.
  • Deliberate practice. Many teachers assume that innate ability separates excellent students from average or poor ones. Recent research strongly suggests, however, that the most important factor in excellent performance is deliberate practice, not talent (National Research Council, 2000;Phye, 1997).Deliberate practice is focused practice where the person is striving towards a goal, and receives frequent, accurate feedback from an instructor. This indicates that most of our students are capable of excellent performance, and it is our job to convince them of this, and then design an instructional environment to move them towards their goal.


Teachers can significantly impact how well students can retrieve (recall) information they have learned. Research has demonstrated that retrieval is improved if learners plan for it when they store and encode the new information. Telling students how they will be assessed allows them to encode and store information that will maximize their ability to retrieve the information later. In addition, if they know they are being assessed for understanding and application, they are likely to process the material more deeply, and store it more efficiently. Teachers can also help students be able to retrieve material in a variety of situations by allowing them to encode and store it in many situations, and use the things they learn in real world situations.

Prior Knowledge and Misconceptions

One of the main findings of recent research is that people learn new information by building on prior knowledge. But what happens when students bring misconceptions with them that are inconsistent with accepted principles and concepts in your discipline? If students are allowed to build new knowledge from these misconceptions, their understanding of the new material will be incomplete and inaccurate. These misconceptions, then, must be identified, confronted and corrected. They can be identified using the methods described in the section above titled "connecting instruction to the prior knowledge of the student." Because students hold tenaciously to their views of the world, simply telling them that another way is more accurate will rarely be effective. Research suggests that students change their misconceptions about something when they experience something that is incompatible with, and more useful, than their prior view (Mestre and Cocking, 2000; National Research Council, 2000; Ormrod, 2004). It is the job of the teacher to design activities that challenge misconceptions, and give students time to process the material and form new connections about the major concepts involved. Here are some specific things to keep in mind when working to confront student misconceptions:

  • Address the misconception that making mistakes is a negative part of learning. Emphasize that making mistakes is an essential part of the path towards a deep understanding of any topic.
  • Maintain a safe environment for reflection and discourse. It is important for students to be able to try out their views of a topic, gradually become dissatisfied with them and then try new, more accurate explanations. Time must be provided for students to work things out via questions and discussions.
  • Encourage students to test their conceptual frameworks with each other by using evidence and possible tests. These types of exercises will provide students with data that contradict their misconceptions.
  • Use demonstrations and labs to illustrate concepts whenever possible. Seeing something happen that does not fit with their current worldview is a powerful way for students to begin to alter their misconceptions.
  • Address misconceptions and stereotypes explicitly. Don't just show contrast examples as direct discussions are also necessary.


One of the primary goals of teachers should be to help their students develop meta-cognitive abilities. Meta-cognition involves many skills related to effective learning and remembering. Research indicates that students who are more meta-cognitively sophisticated (they know how to learn and how to monitor their own learning) learn more and earn higher grades (Bronson, 2000; Kuhn, 2000, Ormrod, 2004). Here are several ways teachers can help students become more meta-cognitive:

  • Help students increase awareness about their learning and memory abilities. For example, this may entail helping the student recognize that cramming and mere repetition of material is ineffective, and that trying to learn 100 pages of material in one night is unrealistic.
  • Help students know which learning strategies are most effective for them. This may involve teaching them that elaborative rehearsal and organizing concepts are superior to rote memorization. It may also entail teaching them how to ask questions and take notes while they read.
  • Help students learn to plan effective approaches for specific learning activities. This could involve showing them how to prepare to write an analytical essay, and emphasizing studying in a place with few distractions.
  • Help students learn how to monitor their knowledge state. Asking questions while they attempt to learn something will increase their awareness of what they do and do not know.
  • Help students plan for assessment by using specific storage strategies. By telling students how you will assess them, and by teaching them appropriate storage and encoding strategies, they will begin to learn when and where to use specific strategies. Teachers can often be excellent models by thinking out loud about when, where and why they would use specific strategies.

Teachers should scaffold students' initial attempts at using new strategies, with an emphasis on gradually making the student more independent over time. For example, guidelines on how to take notes when reading, and how to ask questions when reading, can be phased out after students gain these new skills.


Having a clearer and deeper understanding of how our students learn and remember can and should have a significant impact on how we design our curricula and our daily classes. The strategies outlined here should be viewed as a start towards understanding, and being able to implement in the classroom, the latest findings emerging from cognitive learning research. Further investigation into specific areas is highly recommended.


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John Murray

John Murray is a contributor to Independent School Magazine.