Cognitive Science in the Classroom

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How should teachers apply cognitive science principles in the classroom?

Cognitive science principles of learning can have a real impact on rates of learning in the classroom. There is value in teachers having working knowledge of cognitive science principles…

Cognitive science in the classroomThe lovely people at Education Endowment Foundation have published another study on Cognitive science approaches in the classroom. Given the explosion of teachers being interested in cognitive science research, myself included, this is an important study.

The challenge for us all is it’s one thing knowing about them. It’s even harder to be able to apply them in the classroom.

As many develop an understanding of working memory and cognitive load, knowing that education research can help improve outcomes for children, we must ensure that nuance is considered.

For those wise enough to know how the Department for Education and Ofsted policy has been evolving, this can be reassuring and also worrisome depending on how you view education policy for the classroom. Of course, politicians and league tables ignore nuance, and this is how myths and silver bullets may be translated into progress.

Finally, when reading any research recommendations, we should also define outcomes. Examination scores? Attendance? Reduction in exclusions? Improvement in behaviour and so on. Time and time again, research often focuses on the former as the raison d’etre! Taking a closer look, it is with some caution that all teachers must move forwards…

Initial reflection questions

Before I summarise the 46 page report, here are a few key questions to reflect on once you have read the report:

  1. As my doctoral supervisor always asks, ‘So what?, Now What?’ when any claims are made. This is a good question for anyone reading this report.
  2. What advice would you give a teacher working in a reception class?
  3. What advice would you give to a teacher struggling with a year 9 bottom set maths class?
  4. How would you translate this report and adopt its recommendations for your teaching and learning policy?
  5. In a primary school? Secondary school? Further education college?
  6. How would you translate these recommendations when teaching a student with ADHD?
  7. How could you avoid this research paper being lost in translation?
  8. What is the next best decision you must make?

Different aspects of cognitive science

For teachers who  are engaged with research and/or have been using social media for their own professional learning, many of the following strategies will be well-known. A key thought for everyone, is how widespread these strategies are for teachers in schools which are not research-informed, or for teachers who shy away from CPD.

The 7 aspects of cognitive science referenced are:

  1. Spaced learning (or distributed practice)
  2. Interleaving practice (with most research conducted in maths)
  3. Retrieval practice
  4. Managing cognitive load
  5. Working with schemas
  6. Multimedia learning (including dual coding; with multiple studies show null or negative findings)
  7. Embodied learning.

I suspect the latter term is possibly unknown to most teachers, but I could be wrong. Inside the paper, in each section there is a short summary of what each theory is, plus a few things to consider, as well as examples of how teachers can use one of the above strategies in the classroom. This is probably the most useful section for teachers.

There is also a short summary signposting what the evidence is based on, and these two or three bullet points are summaries of the 372 page literature review shared below.

Literature review

Cognitive science in the classroomDigging into the literature review and methodology, there are over 370 pages to work through; enough research to keep anyone busy for decades! Page 28 explains how the identification of any existing research was screened. There is some fascinating stuff shared, worth dipping in and out of…

Given the emerging policies and evidence used by DfE and Ofsted in their research, having the EEF independently publish something like this is helpful for the profession. A key question is how will the nuance cited influence government policy? I’m not optimistic…

It is also worth noting that within the analysis and results sections, each cognitive science concepts included the following:

  1. Pupil age and characteristics
  2. Location
  3. Learning areas
  4. Outcome measures
  5. Design and delivery.

What is reassuring to read in the executive summary, is that nuance is provided by EEF. As ever, how the principles are applied need consideration, and in what conditions. For example, we know retrieval practice has a high impact on standards, but rarely do we consider ‘What type of retrieval practice activity’ is selected for which task, when should it be used, and with whom.

There are some good examples offered, as well as some words of warning.

Lost in translation?

  1. Any one of us can misunderstand an important part of any of the theories
  2. Where schools might introduce a particular principle, they may fail to equip teachers to deliver the theory
  3. When applied in the classroom, a theory could have misdirected effort
  4.  Finally, one important theory is offered. When moving a research trial from a lab to the the real world, we may find that a theory doesn’t actually work in schools!


Whilst this paper will not provide all teachers with conclusive answers to raise standards, it is an excellent document. More importantly, it will allows educators to consider nuance, emerging ideas and a good body of research.

For example, on pages 24-25 regarding managing cognitive load and worked examples: 22 studies are cited, with most from secondary settings. All of them focused on maths and science with only 8 studies involving the regular class teacher. We still have lots of work to do here if we wish to draw more from cognitive load theory…

Although I welcome and I am very excited about the contents, there is a standout sentence for me which curbs my enthusiasm and signposts my future work in education.

The evidence for the application of cognitive science principles in everyday classroom conditions is much more limited, with uncertainties about the applicability of scientific principles across subjects and age ranges (page 46).

There’s much more to explore, so do have a read!

Applying the principles of cognitive science is harder than knowing the principles and do not determine specific teaching and learning strategies or approaches to implementation (EEF, 2021). Something that may be difficult for policymakers to digest…

2 thoughts on “Cognitive Science in the Classroom

  1. Ross, I Completely agree with your conclusion. I feel too many teachers have been sucked into the appreciation echo-chamber of all this CogSci without much thought about the methodologies used by cognitive scientists, particularly cognitive psychologists.

    It would be worthwhile investing a bit more time into researching ideas such as ‘dual coding’, ‘the generation effect’ and ‘desirable difficulties’ on a larger scale, and particularly in secondary schools, before they are adopted as the dominant pedagogical paradigm. Essentially, if we do not understand the limitations of the research we are adapting and applying, we might not get the impact we expect in the classroom.

    Here are my views:

    1. Yes, recent research evaluation by EEF suggests it’s too early. Much of the origins of the research tends to come from science and maths, secondary and USA. Not very helpful for a primary teacher specialising in drama in a Welsh school, but hence why research is helpful, but needs the necessary context and translation to guide the way.

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