Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: Putting cognitive science principles into practice

EEF blog: Putting cognitive science principles into practice

Rachael Cattrall
Rachael Cattrall
Content Specialist for Cognitive Science (on maternity leave)

Rachael Cattrall, our cognitive science specialist, explores the importance of supporting staff-wide understanding for putting cognitive science practices in place successfully.

Blog •4 minutes •

It is 5pm on Thursday and the staff are filing out of the latest professional development twilight in which an array of new teaching strategies were been launched.

It’s a nice idea in theory, but I can’t really see that working for our subject.”

I don’t really see how that will help, but if that’s what they want me to do, I’ll tick the box.”

These reactions are decidedly common. Despite our best intentions, new initiatives can be met with a lack of enthusiasm, and surface-level compliance. Weeks later, we may see some apparent successes, but decidedly less than we had hoped for.

Building strong foundations

Understanding the foundational principles of cognitive science practices, such as memory processes and cognitive load, is essential if they are to be successfully applied in the classroom. These principles underpin key strategies like retrieval, interleaving, and scaffolding, so it’s important that professional development in this area builds knowledge as well as promoting practical application. Researchers in the field of cognitive science, such as Veronica Yan and colleagues have rightly stated1even empirically supported practices can fail if one does not understand their underlying processes” (2023).

Better understanding will likely develop better practice. It is clear in much of the research in this area, that teacher judgement is key to unlocking the potential of cognitive science practices – informing individual teachers’ practice, as well as curriculum planning.

In the classroom, cognitive load theory might prompt staff to make in the moment” decisions or confront situations they might not have considered during the planning process.

An important part of curriculum planning is thinking about how to make sure the content being taught will be received by pupils – mitigating against introducing too much too fast, or in an unintuitive order.

Similarly, intelligent adaptation by individual departments, phase teams, or teachers is important when planning for the nuances of different topics in the curriculum. This is an area that the EEF’s Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom Evidence Review acknowledges is a challenge of implementing cognitive science given the gaps in evidence in some subjects. This points to the importance of solid understanding of cognitive science principles so that intelligent adaptions can be made to suit differing subjects in a way that benefits pupil learning.

Planning for flexibility

In planning and preparing a new intervention, the emphasises the importance of combining evidence with professional judgement, understanding of context, and careful consideration of which aspects of an intervention must remain the same and which are open to adaption.

It is important to communicate in our professional development what the core components of any strategy are – aspects of the intervention that need to remain the same – and which aspects are open to flexibility.

This contrasts starkly with an initiative that directs teachers to incorporate identical strategies in the name of a whole school approach’, such as beginning every lesson with a retrieval quiz. Bruyckere and Kirschner (2023) warn against the dangers of creating a rule to apply every single time.2 While there is certainly a time and place for consistency, what retrieval might look like in Maths differs to what it may look like in History, for instance.

In addition to building teacher knowledge and identifying core principles of our intervention, how else can we avoid falling victim to the tick box’ when introducing or developing cognitive science in our settings?

1. Allow space for flexibility. By acknowledging the nuances of different classroom situations and subjects, the practice can become tailored to the contexts and therefore may be more effective. Providing exemplification is, of course, helpful, but insisting on one-size-fits-all practices may lessen the impact of a strategy.

2. Plan opportunities for collaboration and sharing practice. Sharing examples of how the practice has been applied and adapted across the subjects can provide a chance to develop teacher techniques through platforming models of successful adaptions and practical social support.


Yan, V. X., Sana, F., & Carvalho, P. F. (2023). No Simple Solutions to Complex Problems: Cognitive Science Principles Can Guide but Not Prescribe Educational Decisions. Policy Insights from the Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 0 (0).

Bruyckere, P.D. & Kirschner, P.A. (2023) Myths and Mutations’, in Jones, K (ed.) The ResearchED guide to Cognitive Science. John Catt Publication, 89 – 100.

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