Cognitive Science

‘Science of Learning ‘ (2015) summarizing the existing research from cognitive science into student learning


Download ‘The Science of Learning’ here

The Science of Learning is a 2015 publication from ‘Deans for Impact’ who are a new non-profit education group based in The States. Their paper summarizes the existing research from cognitive science as it relates to how students learn, connecting this to its practical implications for teaching and learning. Dan Willingham and Paul Bruno where collaborators. The publication identifies six key questions about learning that should be relevant to nearly everyone working in education:

1. How do students understand new ideas?
2. How do students learn and retain new information?
3. How do students solve problems?
4. How does learning transfer to new situations?
5. What motivates students to learn?
6. What are some common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

Graphic summary of The Science of Learning below from Citizenshaw here:

The Science of Learning


Tom Bennett interviews Dan Willingham at ResearchEd 2013

This was a really interesting session from ResearchEd. In this interview, Willingham begins by sharing his belief that cognitive psychology can give reliable insights for educators and Bennett asks what practical use these might be in a classroom. In answer, DW talks about teachers having their own theories about learning, that is what they believe is effective to learning, and CP can add to this or refine understanding. So DW gives an example of CP that can inform teaching practice, and perhaps refine what our own theories are, in the Testing Effect. This means that studying and then taking a test and then another test actually promotes memory (retention) much more than studying again following a test. The name changed to retrieval practice. DW discusses that the test itself isn’t important but the actual act of retrieval which the test helps to structure is. They discussed the friction between practicing teachers and researchers- researchers expecting immediate implementation of their theories and perhaps the implementation to be in an exact way. Most teachers might find this unworkable as the researcher needs to have a precise implementation. Lots of examples of poor implementation of theory into classrooms, such as Brain Gym and Learning Styles, and lots of poor research or thinking masquerading as research. They considered the problem of keeping practitioners up-to-date as research moves along. It seems that teachers themselves are expected to keep up to date on this- surely unique in the professions! Advocates for more, and better, use of scientific findings in education policy- mentions that Gove quoted him a lot and seems to have engaged a lot with his work- the implementation of this by Gove is another matter. Went back a bit to the idea that curiosity stems from manageable problems at the right level of difficulty and that brains are neither good at thinking, or inclined to think, so students in school don’t really want to think and often their curiosity isn’t piqued as it’s either too hard or too easy (solutions drawn from memory). We don’t often hit the intermediary ‘sweet spot’- where they are intrigued.

Some articles dealing with the whole VAK thing

There are two types of people in this world. There is the type that believes there are two types, and they type that does not.








Dan Willingham talking about VAK here.

Also this article from APS (Association for Psychological Science) debunking VAK  here

For clarity, Hattie and Yates (Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, 2014 P. 176- 184) state that ‘it is nonsense to hold the idea that some students can be classified as visual learners whereas others, within the same class, are auditory learners. There is simply no known validity to making classifications of learners on the basis of either neurology or genuine behavioral performance. The caution against any theory that suggests different categories of students need to be taught in different ways. They share their findings that there is not any recognized evidence that knowing or diagnosing learning styles will help you to teach your students any better than not knowing their learning style. They also conclude that learning styles cannot predict learning in any meaningful way. Considering further the issues of aptitude- treatment interaction, that is different types of instruction could suit different types of people. This claim well exceeds any known basis in reality.

Considering the truth behind the four big learning styles ideas:

Idea 1: Students are unique human beings, different from each other. Since one size does not fit all, teachers need to be sensitive to such individual differences. TRUE!

Idea 2: Learners indicate viable preferences about how they feel most able to learn. When given choices people are able to inform us about how they want to learn and study. TRUE, BUT these preferences appear unrelated to genuine learning in real situations- what people say about how they learn doesn’t actually predict how they will learn.

Idea 3: An individual learns more effectively the teachers teaching style matches the learning style of that student. Hence the way that you teach could benefit some and disadvantage others. FALSE! No supporting data- lots of evidence against.

Idea 4: Different students need to be taught in different ways- at some level instruction has to be individualized. PARTLY TRUE! Yes, people are different, but the allowances you make must relate to how they actually learn rather than to unproven traits.

What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesnt affect his educational achievement.


Considering knowledge- acquisition, retention and overload


Hattie and Yates (Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, 2014 P. 113- 125) pick out six principles of knowledge acquisition:

Principle 1: Learning requires time, effort and motivation

Genuine learning is a slow process and needs time, goal- orientation, supportive feedback, accumulated successful practice and frequent review. There aren’t really any shortcuts to this- impressions of quick learning can be deceptive as they are often quickly forgotten.

Principle 2: Concentration spans are short

Concentration spans are short- provide short breaks to avoid overload and deliver new information within 15 minutes. Music doesn’t help with this- it tends to spoil focus and disrupt learning.

Principle 3: Distributed practice is more effective than massed practice or cramming

The distributed practice (or spacing effect) means that learning is better in blocks spread over time, rather than all at once in intense blocks. Blocks of 15 to 30 minutes are effective in cost- benefit terms.

Principle 4: Prior knowledge effects are powerful

The single most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows- ascertain this and teach accordingly. It is much easier to build on existing knowledge than to start from scratch. Interference can be an issue if prior knowledge is based on misconceptions. It is easier to add to existing knowledge through meaning finding, it is therefore useful to be shown an overview or advanced organiser to support this process.

Principle 5: Your mind responds well to multi-media input

We learn well when the inputs we experience are multi-modal or conveyed through different media. All students learn most effectively images and words are linked and the effects are even stronger if this links to prior knowledge.

Principle 6: To learn your mind has to be active

When the mind actively does something with stimulus it becomes memorable.


Hattie and Yates (Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, 2014 P. 113- 125) pick out six principles of memory retention:

Principle 1: To recognise is easy but to recall is hard

Recognising is simply an indication that the material is familiar but doesn’t mean that it has been learnt, is known and so can be recalled.  Recall tests tend to yield lower marks than recognition tests, recall is much harder.

Principle 2: information given first and last is often recalled more easily

The brain processes sequences of information and remembering this is subject to serial position effects. Primacy (what goes in first)and recency (last) effects mean that what goes in first and what we hear last have an advantage in being learnt.

Principle 3: Over time, there are different rates of forgetting

Rote learning = high rates of forgetting UNLESS it is constantly rehearsed or clear patterns perceived within it; if this happens then it can become deeply memorized rather than surface. While mnemonics can help remember, this is still isolated knowledge and still shallow. Rates of forgetting also differ for different types of learning (for example riding a bike lasts a life time).

Principle 4: memory is a highly constructive process

Memory is subject to many different types of error and can ‘play tricks on us’. It doesn’t work as a playback device and instead relies on the brain making sense of partial cues and imprecise information. Perhaps retrieval is a person’s attempt to find a meaningful pattern in the chaos!

Principle 5: The principle of savings: what is forgotten can still help

When original learning seems inaccessible, re-learning can happen quickly- this appears to be unconscious.

Principle 6: Your memory is subject to interference

Interference = natural memory loss and can be as a result of new learning or existing knowledge. Either way, memory is effected. As an example, this might be new words in a discipline having different meanings to the words when you originally encountered them.

What about handling information overload?

Humans can’t actually multi-task and switching between several concurrent tasks will cost in mental capacity. Learning is not always a pleasant experience, despite overall bringing potentially high levels of reward and personal satisfaction. The actual moments in which learning takes place can be stressful and laden with emotions of uncertainty and if capacity is exceeded, can become negative. Learning places great stress on mental resources making a learner vulnerable. Once mental resources are stretched, and once the overload point is reached, then the ability to take on new information is reduced severely. Learners need to develop a wide range of coping strategies to increase opportunities to learn and to manage their emotional responses. It may be that an individuals coping strategies are set by the time they start High School. Learners should know that sources of overload can be identified and can be linked to any one of the following:

  • Low levels of prior knowledge
  • Inappropriate coping strategies
  • Unrealistic expectations (maybe even over confidence)
  • Poor teaching or students not engaging with learning materials
  • Unfavorable learning conditions.
  • Apprehension around assessments



Knowledge is good! Download an article here explaining why.

Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more—the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes—the very ones that teachers target—operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate, the smarter they become.

 Insight into how the mind works

leaders inspire

How does the mind work—and especially how does it learn? Teachers’ instructional decisions are based on a mix of theories learned in teacher education, trial and error, craft knowledge, and gut instinct. Such gut knowledge often serves us well, but is there anything sturdier to rely on?

Article can be downloaded here.

The role of practice in learning

practice makes perfect

practice makes perfect – a motivational slogan on a green stocky note

Article here on the role of practice.
Just how much should students practice what they learn? On the one hand, it seems obvious that practice is important. After all, “practice makes perfect.” On the other hand, it seems just as obvious that practicing the same material again and again would be boring for students. How much practice is the right amount?

Robert Bjork – desirable difficulties

Fast learning doesn’t lead to long-term retention of information. In this interview, Dr. Bjork explains that it is beneficial to create study conditions in which learning is slowed down to allow for better memory for the information in the long-term. This creates an unfortunate conflict between the desire to see quick improvements on the side of the learner and the instructional goals of the instructor.

Robert Bjork – dissociating learning from performance

Performance is something that one can easily measure. How well does a person remember some facts? How well can an athlete perform a particular task? Learning is something that needs to be inferred from performance – it cannot be observed directly. There are many instances where learning occurs but performance in the short term doesn’t improve, and there are instances where performance improves, but little learning seems to happen in the long term. Dr. Bjork tries to disentangle these two concepts and emphasizes that relying too heavily on short-term performance improvements leads to suboptimal learning.