6 Proven Teaching Techniques Backed by Cognitive Science

No parent sends their child to school with the intention of them developing stress, experiencing anxiety, or losing their self-esteem. Every educator desires for their students to learn the material they are being taught. However, both teachers and students have had to teach themselves to learn for different reasons. This is not meant to criticize the education system, but rather to acknowledge the challenges that exist. There is more that can be done to ensure that each student and teacher is set up for success. This includes improving each student’s ability to learn and fostering curiosity for learning, rather than comparing them to one another or attributing their struggles to bad habits.

Successful educators continuously improve their teaching methods by using evidence-based instructional practices and incorporating scientific findings about learning.

Learning is a complex process that involves various cognitive skills, emotions, behaviors, and prior knowledge. Luckily, the field of cognitive science has accumulated a wealth of evidence on how we learn (the science of learning) and how to teach effectively to promote learning (the science of teaching). Unfortunately, much of this valuable evidence remains confined to academia, isolated from professional development, and largely absent from where it is needed most: our classrooms. Here are some tips for applying this knowledge in your own classroom.

6 Strategies to Enhance Learning According to Cognitive Science

1. Prepare the brain for learning. While tests are often used to assess performance, they can also be powerful tools for fostering learning. Research in the science of learning suggests that testing before teaching the material actually helps students learn it better. This is because it signals to their brains what is important and what is to come, a phenomenon known as priming. Look for opportunities to incorporate priming questions into your established classroom routines.

2. Engage your students’ attentional filter. Learning requires “active processing,” as information is only processed and remembered if it successfully passes through our attentional filters. Learners then choose which pieces of information to bring into their working memory and actively engage with in order to learn. Keep in mind that only a fraction of what you teach is actually actively processed, and more information gets processed when you actively engage students with the material. Capture your students’ attention with prediction, purposeful novelty, and cues that indicate importance.

3. Teach jargon ahead of time to prevent cognitive overload. Teaching often involves introducing new terms. According to cognitive multimedia theory, students learn better when they are introduced to these terms before the actual content. This helps prevent cognitive overload, which occurs when new content is paired with new terms and hampers the student’s ability to grasp both simultaneously. Consider using flashcards at the beginning of a unit instead of waiting until the end.

4. Incorporate frequent, spaced retrieval practice. We start forgetting what we’ve learned shortly after we’ve learned it. The forgetting curve shows how learned information decays over time. However, we can combat forgetting and enhance learning by using retrieval practice. Retrieval practice involves pulling stored memories from long-term memory into working memory for continued processing and use. Spacing refers to strategically introducing delays between learning trials. It works because it requires additional cognitive effort to recall the material and creates multiple retrieval routes that aid memory. Ask questions about material from last year, last month, and last week.

5. Alternate between subjects after a moderate review of each. We are accustomed to working in a blocked manner, with textbooks and study habits designed this way. However, this approach is not as effective for learning. Interleaving challenges this conventional approach by incorporating a more effective method. When tasks or skills are mixed within a single class period or study session, the brain has to work harder, and memory associations are strengthened. The key is to alternate after a moderate review of each subject; avoid switching subjects too frequently. There is no universal formula for how often to switch, as it varies across age groups, subject matter, and cognitive profiles. As a general guideline, consider interleaving no more than two to three topics per session and switching topics roughly every 15-20 minutes.

6. Encourage students to actively generate information. Students are often asked questions that can be answered by simply regurgitating the provided text or content. Elaboration, another form of retrieval practice, challenges students to go beyond what is given and describe using detailed explanations. This process activates prior knowledge and makes connections, strengthening learning. Create opportunities for students to form connections between different ideas and concepts and consider what makes them similar or different.

These strategies only scratch the surface of the challenges that many teachers and students face today. By delving deeper into cognitive science, teachers can become experts in both the science of learning and the academic content they teach. The science of learning supports the important work already being done by many educators.