EEF Blog: Implementing cognitive science strategies in the classroom

Secondary science teacher and EEF science specialist, Dr Niki Kaiser, explains how she makes effective use of cognitive science approaches in her classroom.

Before I trained as a teacher, I was a marine scientist, researching how algae in the Atlantic Ocean interacted with the atmosphere.

To answer my research question perfectly, I would’ve had to sample every inch of the ocean non-stop, over a long period of time. This wasn’t possible, so I had to make certain compromises. Rather than sampling the entire Atlantic Ocean, I collected bottles of seawater from a series of points within it, extrapolating from this local data to the wider ocean. I could never be sure exactly what was happening to each individual plant in every inch of the ocean at any particular moment, but I could make useful predictions from the measurements I’d made.

I can see parallels between this approach and using ‘lab-based’ educational research studies to inform classroom practice. We are never going to be able to study every individual child’s response to every approach on every day throughout their life at school, but we can search for pedagogical principles that might help us understand the best approaches to attempt.

Cognitive science is an area where much of the evidence comes from studies in the psychology laboratory and from researcher-led trials, rather than from directly within the classroom.

But teachers know that learning is complex, and the success of any approach will depend on both the context and the way it’s implemented. Just because something works in a controlled environment, there is no guarantee it will be successful for every teacher, with each individual student, and in any context.

New ‘Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom’ Systematic Review

The EEF’s recent review of Cognitive Science focuses on applied research, which takes place within classrooms. As with lab studies, these are designed to isolate and test a particular principle or strategy, but they aim to do this in an environment that incorporates the kinds of problems that are common in our classrooms, but which won’t be present in tightly controlled conditions.

I was interested to read the section on Retrieval Practice within the review, because it’s something I have used regularly within my own classroom. Retrieval practice is “recalling information from memory with little or minimal prompting”, and it can be used both as a way of supporting learning and of assessing what pupils already know. Low-stakes quizzes, for example, encourage pupils to think hard about things they’ve learned previously, thus supporting retention, but they can also give teachers an idea of areas that need reviewing for a particular group of pupils.

However, it’s important to think about how and why you’re using retrieval practice, rather than just “doing retrieval practice”, and assuming your pupils will learn more. First of all, you need to think about what it is you want them to recall, because the evidence is uncertain about how much retrieval practice can support learning higher order content, rather than simple factual recall. This doesn’t necessarily negate the potential value of retrieval practice, but it does mean you need think about what this means for your subject.

As a Chemistry teacher, I know there is key language and core knowledge that my students need at their fingertips, so they can access more complex concepts, and I prioritise this for retrieval practice. But I also appreciate that this isn’t the end of the story, because the best Chemists are able to use this language fluently to describe changes they see, and to make connections between ideas. I therefore need to support my students to apply what they know in a range of contexts, as well as simply recalling it.

Another important consideration is whether my low stakes quizzes are genuinely low stakes, and that they feel like that to my students. Formative assessment is an important aspect of effective teaching, and I will always use the information I gain from students’ answers to inform my next steps. But if they are worried about me collecting in their scores, and if this makes them less willing to try (and potentially fail), which changes the nature of the exercise. So, I might choose to glance over students' shoulders as they’re answering, rather than taking marks in afterwards.

As with any approach within our classrooms, it is important to use evidence to inform the decisions we make. It is also vital to remember that this is only a starting point. Careful implementation, and tailoring approaches to our own context, are just as important as the principles themselves, if they are to work for the individuals within out classes in our subjects.