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For teaching and learning, why is it important to understand cognitive principles?

Dr Efrat Furst

Dr Efrat Furst from Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and formerly Harvard University, delves into the implications of what we know about cognitive science, what happens when we learn; and highlights practical solutions for the classroom in her presentation at the SSAT National Conference in December 2019

I work to bridge and communicate the cognitive sciences with education, working with teachers to improve teaching and learning in their classrooms. What I want to do today is to talk about the cognitive principles of learning and make the case of why they are important for teaching and learning – why they can help us think about teaching, ask better questions, and serve as guidelines to use when we teach.

What I’d like to do today is paint a picture of the major systems, how they interact, some features, limitations, key questions, and classroom-oriented answers. Knowing the key cognitive principles of learning may empower us to teach all our students better.

Embedding Formative Assessment

Learning helps us to survive, to live in wellbeing, to communicate, to be innovative in everything that we do. And in order to do it, we need three cognitive functions. We need to select the most relevant information, to process it, and of course to remember it. And we call these systems attention, working memory, and long-term memory.

Working memory is where we consciously process information with our prior knowledge, so that hopefully we can introduce these things into long-term memory. Our working memory is really limited in capacity – it’s only several items and for limited amount of time, and we need to put things together to make sense, maybe to do some task, for potential future storage in long-term memory.

Another thing is that prior knowledge is really important. For example, (referring back to an apparently simple number-recollection challenge she had given the audience, where in fact the digits were Mandarin) if we know those digits it’s much easier.

So, back to the scheme: long-term memory is virtually unlimited in capacity, as we can always create new patterns on the existing cells. It’s accessed by and feeds working memory and it has some limitations: we have no idea how it’s organised; and accessibility – you know that there are things that you have there in the brain and yet are unable to retrieve them in order to use them. So, not everything in long-term memory is accessible.

Practical solutions in the classroom

What I’m going to do now is to go over these barriers, and then highlight the classroom-oriented answers that we can give.

We start with cognitive load. This is when we have too much information, we can’t process it so we lose some of the information or the ability to process altogether. It happens all the time. Some students in classrooms may know how to apply strategies, for example to write something down before and process later, or ask the teachers to repeat. Obviously, not all students are able to do it, especially when they’re novice, disadvantaged or when the information is very, very new.

And it’s our role to help them in managing the load. The way we do it is by breaking things into smaller pieces, giving really clear and explicit instructions. Dealing with the elements first before connecting them is really important. Implications for reading, for example: go over the vocabulary before you work with the text; or in maths, master some simple procedures before you apply them in a more complex context.

Make meaning to remember

Now, it’s important to ask why we remember some things and don’t remember others. Is it the emotional value, is it the motivation to remember? And the answer that both research and practice point to is, we have to make meaning in order to remember.

This means explaining a new concept to ourselves in terms of things that we already know before thinking how we can use it. That is, embedding something new within an existing network to make it functional. Take for example two students in the classroom learning something new. One of them may think, ’Oh, this is interesting. Why is this true? How is it similar or different to whatever I’ve learned before and how can I use it?’ while the other may say to themselves, ’Oh, this sounds important. I must remember it. It probably will be in the test.’ So, both of them are thinking about the material but very different things. One of them is making meaning; what the other is doing is useless.

So, what we have to do is help them by offering clear explanations, concrete examples. A concrete example is taking something we already know, and its connections, and using it to explain something new. We can use illustrations and visualisations to show the connection between the elements. And we can use focused questions to help students think about what they need to in order to make meaning.

Retrieval practice

Now, I think this is the most important aspect of all, and it is relevant in all the stages of learning (although again it’s insufficient): not only memories but pathways to get this information are also made of networks. And we have to pay attention to these networks.

So, we have to pay specific attention to making the information useful by rehearsing retrieval pathways. Retrieval practice is an evidence-based approach: if we practise retrieving things by trying to answer questions, it’s much more effective than rereading or rehearsing. So we have to make sure that everything we want students to know is practised properly, at home and in the classroom.

And this is important because it probably won’t surprise you to hear that when you leave students to choose what they want to do, they generally won’t choose retrieval practice because it’s harder work and leads to them making mistakes. But those students are missing an opportunity. If the information is well practised it becomes easily retrieved, it reduces cognitive load: because we don’t need to invest much mental resource in retrieving information, we can use whatever is left for making more meaning.

This is the basic network. Looking at these elements and identifying the barriers, we can guide students through a process of learning. It’s important to note that this is especially important for novice students at any subject, any age.

Sometimes there seems to be a clash between these ideas: very explicit instruction versus making students creative problem solvers and critical thinkers. But in fact there is no clash, as long as we realise that we must not confuse the goal and the process to get there.

Deep Learning for Social Justice

Overarching all of these aspects is metacognition. If students know how they learn, why some strategies are better than others, why it’s good to make mistakes and how they learn from the mistakes, they can make more sense, they are more engaged, they take control of their learning, they become more effective learners.

One last point: I think becoming an effective, independent learner must involve learning by doing. If we teach effectively, we give students the experience and the opportunity to become one.


SSAT members can watch the video from the conference: Dr Efrat Furst – The essential cognitive principles of learning


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