Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: Cognitive science – the tip of the iceberg

EEF blog: Cognitive science – the tip of the iceberg

Blog exploring the importance of understanding the fundamental principles of cognitive science.
Rachael Cattrall
Rachael Cattrall
Content Specialist for Cognitive Science (on maternity leave)

Rachael Cattrall, the EEF’s cognitive science specialist, explores the importance of understanding the fundamental principles of cognitive science.

Blog •3 minutes •

Although its theories are not new, there is continuing interest in cognitive science, and with good reason. Its principles offer a greater understanding of how to help our pupils learn and retain information, allowing us to maximise our teaching time.

Before rushing headlong into implementing of cognitive science’s promising practices, it is important for us to pause and gain an understanding of the fundamental principles underlying such approaches.

Running too fast with retrieval practice’?

Let’s take retrieval practice as an example. Recapping, quizzing, and reviewing are already staples in most teachers’ repertoires. However, it would be shallow to see retrieval practice as simply occasional quizzes or cold call questions. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface sits extensive theory of memory and cognitive load.

Without a firm grasp of these theories, it can be difficult to fully understand the best way to implement a strategy like retrieval to benefit our pupils. Take the following example:

In this scenario, Ms Harper has not considered why retrieval is important for long-term memory or how it can help support pupils’ cognitive load in the learning of new content or completion of a task. Better understanding of the theories of memory and cognitive load lead us to ask questions like:

  • What specific knowledge is best retrieved to support students in this lesson?
  • When should the retrieval activity be placed within the lesson to be most beneficial to support working memory?
  • How will the students receive feedback on this retrieval to make sure that misconceptions are not embedded before new learning is added?

A solid foundation of cognitive science principles allows us to move beyond the simplistic quizzes and start to unpick the nuances that make up effective retrieval practice.

By securing this understanding of the principles and rationale behind certain practices, we can make sure that approaches like retrieval practice are applied and adapted intelligently to avoid the lethal mutations that could lessen potential learning gains.

Diving deeper

One of the important factors to consider when implementing cognitive science is that not all of the practices have been tested in both primary and secondary settings, or in a range of subjects. This means that we should prioritise understanding the theory sitting behind each practice. This allows us to ensure that the practice is compatible with our contexts, and to monitor the impact of our approaches deliberately and attentively.

To explore the depths of the cognitive science iceberg’, the EEF’s Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom evidence review provides an overview of a range of cognitive science principles, as well as a summary of where the evidence has come from.

You could consider:

  • How well do you understand the processes of memory and cognitive load? (page 10 and 24 of the Evidence Review)
  • How does your understanding translate into your classroom practices? (page 24 of the Evidence Review)
  • How can you review current practices to better consider memory and cognitive load?

For a clear and concise definition guide for the practices outlined in the EEF’s Cognitive Science evidence review, see this EEF blog from our Maths Content Specialist Grace Coker, earlier this year.