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Discussion and Development 2019 2: Cognitive Science

We're doing a blog a week in January, and this week's is all about cognitive science - it focuses on revision and learning, and as well as the implications for delivery of information literacy, there may also be implications for reading for pleasure and word acquisition.


The Most Important Thing For Teachers To Know: Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory is said to be "the most important thing for teachers to know". It is important because our Working Memory is limited and can only process so much at one time. Thus, we need to manage its load.

In 2013, Prof John Dunlosky reviewed dozens of academic papers and rated commonly used learning strategies from the least to the most evidence-based. We have summarised them here.

10. Imagery for text

This technique consists of developing internal images that elaborate on the material being studied. Dunlonsky’s research showed that the benefits of mental imagery are short-lived. The strategy also does not seem to be widely applicable.

9. Keyword mnemonic
This strategy is particularly used when learning new words or a foreign language. It involves using a keyword to represent the new term. Research does not support the effectiveness of this technique.

8. Summarisation
Paraphrasing the most important ideas in a text can help to learn. However, this technique only works after students are properly trained in how to write summaries. Dunlosky suggests that this need for extensive training - which usually does not happen - reduces the applicability of the technique and that other less-demanding strategies should be chosen instead.

7. Highlighting
Despite its popularity, Dunlosky reports performance after reading and highlighting is not better than performance after reading only.

6. Rereading
Also a very popular technique, rereading seems to only help with knowing, but not with understanding. That is, it improves students’ ability to recall something as old, but does not enhance their learning for that topic.

5. Self-explanation
This strategy is used when students’ explain how new information relates to things they already know. Relating novel content to prior knowledge creates new connections and facilitates the development of schemes.

4. Elaborative interrogation
This strategy involves asking and answering Why and How questions. That is, thinking about a subject in more depth and detail, which strengthens connections in the brain.

3. Interleaved practice
Interleaving is the strategy of mixing up the order of questions across different topics. Research reveals this technique to be particularly effective in when teaching Maths and parts of the Science content. Commonly, students learn strategy A and solve a series of problems that demand strategy A, and then do the same with strategy B. Interleaving would be to learn strategy A and strategy B, and solve problems that can demand one or the other in a pseudo-random order. This way, students need to figure out the right strategy from the problem itself, which leads to a deeper understanding of the topic and better preparation for exams.

2. Distributed practice
Distributed practice is basically the opposite of cramming. Research consistently shows that studying small chunks of content spread out over time is more effective than studying long blocks of the same topic only once. To use it successfully, students should start preparing way ahead of their exam dates and organise their time with a calendar. In the classroom, teachers should review not only the previous lesson but also lessons from much earlier.

1. Practice testing
The most effective strategy according to Dunlosky’s research is practice testing. It consists of studying and reviewing by answering questions and actively bringing information back to mind. When this is done, information is reconsolidated, new connections are created, and memory and understanding are strengthened. When reviewing topics in class, teachers should always include low-stake quizzes. These can be of various types, as long as they demand active retrieval. Immediate feedback should be provided.


Seneca’s free homework and revision platform uses these techniques to maximise students learning. Students memorise two times more efficiently on their platform due to a variety of neuroscience principles. All their algorithms are based on these principles to repeat content in different formats at the right time. As a result, Seneca can maximise the student’s performance. This has also been proven during an academic study that has been published in the academic journal of the Chartered College of Teaching.

If you want to learn more about cognitive science then you can complete Seneca’s Cognitive Science for Teachers course (https://app.senecalearning.com/classroom/course/9f6bf15c-23fe-401c-810a-3bc66d761885) and become a Seneca Certified Educator.

For more information on what Seneca does and how it works, visit their website and sign up at senecalearning.com. It’s free!

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