Thursday 5 September 2013

Can I be that little better at……using cognitive science/psychology/neurology to plan learning?

In my last post I talked about how a number of factors throughout an academic year can help inform what you plan, how you plan it, and ultimately why you would plan it that way.  It took into account a lot of experience, trials, research and an underlying understanding of teaching.  In this post, I look at how knowing a little bit about cognitive science, psychology and neurology can affect the way in which you plan learning.  It’s always interested me how something I teach students’ one day can be forgotten only a few days later.  How is it that something I was so confident was memorised (or learnt) by students seems to vanish so quickly.  And that will be the underlying theme running through the posts.  How can we actually (or as best as we can) get the stuff we teach learnt in a way that students will remember it for a long time to come?  Now I may be speaking out of turn, but knowing how to make things 'stick' so that they can be retrieved at a later date, and methods we can plan into our lessons to do this, should at least cross our mind when putting a plan together.  You may not do anything out of the ordinary, but understanding how the brain works (that is if we actually really know how it works?) could help make what we plan to do to, and how we plan to do it, be that little bit more effective.  But first, here’s a summary of three background pieces of information you should be aware of:

It’s all a bit…..chemical-ly?
In a short sweet summary, the brain creates memories or templates through the release of various chemicals in the brain.  The two main ones are glutamate and dopamine.  Dopamine is the chemical that as teachers we want students’ brains to be releasing to ensure what we are teaching actually sticks.  It’s essential for making templates and connecting neurones to have this present in learning.  But how?  Well dopamine is predominantly released in two ways.  One of them is stress.  Although stress releases dopamine, it actually floods the brain and causes future problems.  It releases other chemicals that inhibit learning and actually affect the areas concerned with memory.  A more appropriate way is through reward and anticipation of reward (Curran, 2008).  As a teacher this can be created by the level of challenge and the way we involve students in learning.  I’ll talk about it a little later.  The main message here though is that if we create a highly stressful environment for students, we shouldn’t be surprised if things don’t stay in students memories for long.

The brain has a working memory, and it’s a really important part if we want things to stick.
In essence, when students are learning in your classroom they initially use their working memory to process and filter what it is you are teaching them.  The working memory however has limited space and can get very crowded very quickly.  It can also get filled up with distractions or irrelevant information which is why students sometimes misunderstand or can't remember things.

"Working memory is the workspace in which thought occurs, but the space is limited, and if it gets crowded, we lose track of what we're doing and thinking fails" 

(D.T.Willingham Why Don't Students Like School) 

Now the working memory deals with the ‘here and now’.  It’s what students use when forming an understanding as we teach them or explain something.  Information resides in here as students make meanings or develop understanding.  When the conditions are right, this information can then be transferred to the long term memory.

Working memory is a key player in getting information into our long term memory
Daniel T. Willingham in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? explains that working memory and long term memory work hand in hand with each other.  When the working memory is dealing with new information, it calls upon the long term memory for relevant background information to help make sense of it.  Once the working memory has thought about it, understood it and made meaning of it, there is a good chance that this information is committed to the long term memory.  This is a very basic analogy and isn’t as simple as it sounds.  If it were, students’ would remember a lot more than they already do.  But they key message here is that information needs to be attended to in the working memory otherwise there is little chance of a lasting memory ever happening. 

So how do we do this?

1 - The working memory is limited in space though so we need to consider this in our planning.
It is therefore really important in planning to ensure that when an element of learning is taking place, we don't over complicate it or create unnecessary distractions.  Ensuring that the attention of the student is purely on the learning is something that should be considered when planning.  Will the example you give or the task you design actually alter the students focus elsewhere and away from the topic in hand?  Nuthall in his book discusses how students’ recollection of information can be affected by the type of activity we design.  He states “sometimes memory for the task itself is longer lasting than the content the task was designed to teach”.  Willingham also gives a great example in his book where a teacher creates a task that resulted in students creating PowerPoint presentations.  Sounds normal yes?  The point he raises though is many students focused on the quality of the PowerPoint (the animations, fonts, pictures) and focused very little on the content they were learning.  Obviously the level of learning and what could be remembered about the topic at a later date wasn't very high.  That isn't to say though that we give up using variety and being creative in lessons (because this is an important part of remembering which I will talk about later), but the suggestion is to work on the content first, refine it, learn it and plan it before putting it into a new context (a poster, presentation, leaflet).  Therefore the learning in lessons, and time to create drafts, will need time carefully planned into it and come prior to starting such activities.  Getting students to think about, analyse and design what goes into a presentation before they hit the computers is a consideration that should be taken on board.

2 - Knowing things makes it easier to learn new things
Ok that again is a bit simplistic but the constant theme coming through Nuthall, Willingham and the work of Bjork is that having prior knowledge helps understand new knowledge much easier (although Nuthall does go on to say that if students of different abilities have the same learning experience they will learn just as much as each other).  It is though very difficult to know how much prior knowledge each individual has.  In my last post I talked about the importance of knowing the prior attainment of your group and using this to inform future planning.  But this is normally in the form of data and doesn’t tell you what they really know.  There is the possibility of planning in pre-tests or other introductory activities but maybe we could make the initial planning that little bit simpler.  One consideration is the careful planning of what is taught first and the sequences/pathways that follow.  The tip is to build upon prior knowledge so logically ordering what is taught first so it snowballs and draws upon old information can easily be mapped out before starting a unit.  Building upon prior knowledge and learnt information makes learning new topics easier.  This is down to the fact that new knowledge retrieves and builds upon the older information to form new connections.  The order doesn't have to be linear though and by using hooks, larger questions or starting with a broader concept, we can start with a wider idea which we can begin to learn about.  So is there a logical order in your subject?  Is there something that is vital to know first?  

3 - We can make using the working memory more efficient
This is more of a rationale rather than a tip.  As my earlier quote from Willingham explains, if there is too much going on in the working memory, students can lose sight of what is going on and the process fails.  Although there are no known ways to improve working memory, there is advice to using it more efficiently.  If working memory has a limited space, crowding it with numerous pieces of information can make the learning more difficult and less likely to be remembered (as I touched upon above).  A lot of new information we learn is done so by combining or linking to existing understanding or background knowledge.  By making what you teach more likely to be stored in the long term memory, it is easier to retrieve it again in future when you need it and is more space efficient (for the working memory) when doing so.  It therefore makes learning new information more achievable, especially when you need already learnt information (background knowledge) to do so.  So planning to commit as much information as possible through these suggestions can make the learning of new information easier.  Makes sense to me.

4 - It will only stick if you think about it
Willingham in his book talks about the importance of getting students to think about the knowledge they are paying attention to.  He explains that “your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it's a product of what you think about”.  It is therefore important we take his tip and “review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about”.  If we are to help commit what we are teaching to students’ memory to be recalled later, we need to ensure the level of thinking is high throughout.  Unfortunately, many a lesson in my early career rarely had students thinking hard about anything at all.  Should I have been surprised when test scores weren't great?  So the step forward (in my case using SOLO taxonomy) is to constantly check planning before hand to evaluate the quality and depth of thinking that progresses through the lesson.  Am I hitting the surface and background information at the right times to build up background knowledge, and then working with it at a higher level later on to compare, evaluate, analyse and predict?  Willingham also talks about the fact that it's not just the level of thinking taking place, but the making meaning of what is being thought about.  Are the activities we have planned to use actually the most effective to help them understand what the information means?  This involves clever task design to ensure this happens.  The use of concept maps, challenge, well thought out questions and carefully planned tasks need to become part and parcel of what I do.  So, if the lesson I have planned doesn't make students think, or even understand the meaning of what is being taught, then it's back to the drawing board!   

5 – Pitching it right
As I said earlier on, the challenge that students are faced with when learning can help improve the likelihood of longer lasting memories to be formed.  Willingham talks about solving problems (in a wider sense) and engaging students in cognitive work.  If students aren't actually thinking and making meaning then it won’t be learnt.  He also warns that “without some attention, a lesson plan can become a long string of teacher explanations, with little opportunity for students to solve problems”.  So reviewing how challenging the lesson will be is again a really important point.  Have you pitched the work right?  Is there too little opportunity for students’ to think and be challenged? 

And then there's the neurology side (as highlighted by A. Curran). If I want to get the brain cells firing I also need to go back to the fact that the level of challenge needs to be pitched adequately in order to create an emotional response (emotion improves what is remembered).  In a very (and I mean very) basic summary, to learn new things we need chemical reactions involving the release of dopamine to be present.  Dopamine is normally released when a reward is present.  The emotion and reward of learning, and resultant dopamine release, is essential to commit knowledge to the long term memory.  It's the chemical which binds the neurones together to create memory so is essential I help (if I can) to get them firing and dopamine released.  Pitching a task too easy creates no real reward.  Why would it?  There simply isn't a reason for that feel good feeling to happen.  On the flip side, creating a task so difficult and without clear steps to achieving it students feel helpless and see it is not achievable is also not conducive (but don't make the task easier, make the thinking around it easier).  Again, knowing your group and planning to push individuals to create new meanings is another sure fire way to commit information to the long term memory.  Planning to get that dopamine release isn't going to be easy, but pitching challenge is surely the way forward.

6 – Three is the magic number
In his research that focused on how students actually learned in classrooms, Nuthall found that students who were exposed to a new concept on three different occasions and in a variety of experiences, stored the information in their memories for longer.  He states that:

“We discovered that a student needed to encounter, on at least three different occasions, the complete set of the information that she or he needed to understand a concept.  If the information was incomplete, or not experienced on three different occasions, the student did not learn the concept.”

Now using this principle, Nuthall was able to successfully predict what students would learn/remember with an accuracy of 80-85%.  An important warning though is that simple repetition will not be sufficient.  The three different experiences must come in a variety of mediums and ways.  Variety is therefore the key.  He also stresses that one great explanation is not enough.  So why three times?  Well he explains that new concepts aren’t transferred from the working memory into the long term memory until enough information has been accumulated to warrant it to make the move.  Students need to have sufficient understanding, knowledge of meaning and be able to link it to prior knowledge.  So in planning out a topic, will students really encounter a concept a minimum of three times each in their own varied way?  If not, this may also be a reason for things not sticking.

7 – If you don’t use it you lose it
This is a saying that I have heard for many years but is not quite right.  It's true that things become harder to remember as Willingham states when he says "we forget much (but not all) of what we have learned, and the forgetting is rapid".  Bjork (who I will introduce in a moment) along with Curran explain that it’s not a case that previously well learnt information we haven’t thought about is simply removed from memory.  They say it is not as simple as that.  Obviously our long term memory doesn't have an infinite capacity (do we really even know how much it has?), but one thing is for sure, if we don’t get students to revisit things, the connections or ‘route’ to them becomes weaker and more difficult.  Bjork talks about the fact that these things simply become harder to retrieve.  In some of the work by Bjork, subjects struggled to remember information they had learned a long time ago.  When presented with possible answers or cues, they suddenly remembered.  It wasn’t that the information was lost.  It was just harder to find or retrieve and the prompts help with the process.  So how can we ensure that we can help students learn something so that it is accessible a long way down the line (like during the exams period?).  As point 8 states, ione consideration could be ‘Practice, practice, practice’.

Interlude – Intro to Bjork
I thought it might be beneficial to stop for a moment and explain a little bit about Robert Bjork.  Some of what I will now talk about use slightly different terminology and I wouldn’t want to confuse examples.  One of the things that has got me most excited is the work of Robert Bjork, the Cognitive Psychologist from UCLA.  He poses some VERY clear considerations of how to tweak planning to improve long term memory.  Much of his work is not just applicable to the planning of lessons, but is also very important to long term planning of schemes, units or whole courses.

Bjork's work ties in with Willingham's research in a number of places.  Bjork talks a lot about long term memory and the fact that what goes in there is dependent on two indices: its storage strength (SS) or its retrieval strength (RS).  He talks very clearly about the importance of creating an environment where any new information is done so in a way that SS and RS is high.  Designing lessons where both (or even one of them) are low, could make remembering this information very difficult.  So what are these two elements and how to they link with planning?
Storage strength - 'How well learned something is'.  It makes perfect sense that learning something in depth increases the chance that it will be stored in the long term memory.  The better it is learnt the greater the storage strength.  If it has high storage strength, it is pretty likely that it will be stored in the long term memory ready to be 'retrieved' at a later date.

Retrieval strength - 'How accessible (or retrievable) something is'.  In very simple terms, retrieval strength works a little like this: The better you learn something, the higher the storage strength, the higher the retrieval strength.  Retrieval strength is your ability to recall, or retrieve, information at a later date.  Now retrieval strength decreases over time which is why a few months or years down the line we find it difficult to remember something even though it is on the tip of your tongue.  If something only has a low storage strength it will decrease quicker than something which you have learned well and ultimately has a high storage strength.  Obvious to say then that if you want to remember something a long way down the road, you need to ensure what you learn is high in both SS and RS.

But what implications will this have on my teaching?  How can I plan to have both of these?  Well Bjork identified a number of conditions which over time increase the chances of high SS and RS - which in turn leads to information being retained for much longer.  Now Bjork warns that these principles “slow down the apparent learning, but under most circumstances help long term retention, and help transfer of knowledge, from what you learnt to new situations”.  He dubbed these conditions desirable difficulties.  These conditions are purposely difficult and challenging to the students and assist in long term learning.  Whether you see 'rapid and sustained progress' in 25 minutes is unlikely.  But short term effects are not the goal here (and neither is it mine).  So how does Bjork’s work tie in with the others?  Let’s get back to the tips.

8 – Spacing it out (carefully mapping out practice, practice, practice).
Willingham and Bjork both have similarities in a lot of their work.  Willingham talks about the need revisit work and states “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice”.  It is important then that things we want to stay retrievable in the long term memory need to be engrained in it adequately.  Practicing and repeated learning of a task can help make that information stick.  It also makes it more accessible in the long term memory and this helps new learning and the function of the working memory more efficient.  We therefore need to ensure that repeated practice is planned out throughout the year to ensure that a topic is revisited.  A way to do this (as agreed by both Willingham and Bjork) is space out learning and times when we come back to a topic.  As Bjork explains:

“It is common sense that when we want to learn information, we study that information multiple times. The schedules by which we space repetitions can make a huge difference, however, in how well we learn and retain information we study. The spacing effect is the finding that information that is presented repeatedly over spaced intervals is learned much better than information that is repeated without intervals (i.e., massed presentation).'”

In numerous studies in this field, Bjork and other researchers have found that the revisiting a topic multiple times over an extended period has a huge impact on the long term learning.  Obvious hey? But do we always plan to do this?  Bjork explains that by spacing out the intervals between revisiting a topic, we are encouraging the retrieval strength to decrease (The new theory of disuse - Bjork & Bjork 1992).  He also promotes that we plan to have the duration between intervals increases each time as well.  But why do this?  Research showed that information with a high storage strength, which was allowed to lower in retrieval strength over time, actually improves the subsequent learning of it when revisited.  The brain stores this information much better the second, third, forth time round and improves the retrieval strength as it goes.  The act of trying to remember what we almost forget is a good thing for memory.  Therefore planning to revisit topics and working out an optimal gap between revisiting it (increasing in length each time so it is almost forgotten) can have a very high effect on the long term learning of it.  From a planning perspective, it is therefore vital that topics are mapped out through units and schemes, with opportunities for them to be revisited or recapped.  Although this may seem time consuming to plan, or logistically a bit of a headache, the long term benefits can be far greater than simply blocking topics together (massing practice which ultimately results in very poor retention and retrieval strength) which is something we, and a lot of other schools, currently do.

9 – Interleaving
Now if I spaced and revisited topics from a course using the previous idea, you might quickly realise that you would run out of available time in your curriculum.  A way to ensure that spacing is done more efficiently is to weave numerous topics together throughout the year.  An example of this may be linking a topic I cover at the start of the year, say gender in sport, with a topic I teach a few months later, sponsorship in sport.  This process is called interleaving and requires the learner to constantly reload information from the long term memory.  A more extreme version of this may be to teach gender in sport, then age in sport, then diet in sport and so on, until finally returning to recover gender in sport, age in sport......etc.  As you can see, this could be logistically impossible with the time constraints of a 2 year GCSE course.  At a first time of trying this very different approach it could also be perplexing for students.  Instead, using the principle of spacing, combined with my initial example of interleaving, can result in a very exciting programme of study.  It steps away from the blocking of topics (massing practice) and allows for retrieval and storage strength to be increased.  It also allows juxtaposition of various topics and deepens understanding.  Planning out the course more effectively using this principle can be easily done.  The use of SOLO taxonomy in my personal lesson design also assists the achieving of this.  It does require careful mapping out, but reworking schemes this way ensures SS and RS increase.  A winner for long term learning.

10 – The testing effect

“Taking a test often does more than assess knowledge; tests can also provide opportunities for learning. When information is successfully retrieved from memory, its representation in memory is changed such that it becomes more recallable in the future and this improvement is often greater than the benefit resulting from additional study.”

Being asked to retrieve information alters your memory so information becomes more re-callable in the future.  Bjork identified testing as a method that can help make this happen.  This isn't testing purely for assessment though, although it can serve both purposes if needed.  The process of testing allows the connections towards that piece of information to strengthen, and therefore be easier to access than other methods.  It can be done in a number of ways.  Here are three which I will be planning to use over the year:

If we start in a logical order, Bjork found that testing prior to a topic or unit can has an improved resulting effect to long term learning.  This is an easy enough task to put in place and can be planned for at the start of any new topic.  “Although pretest performance is poor (because students have not been exposed to the relevant information prior to testing), pretests appear to be beneficial for subsequent learning (e.g., Kornell, Hays, & R. A. Bjork, 2009).”  It in itself provides cues for the then to be learnt information which makes it more learnable.

Using testing within lessons is also an effective method to increase long term learning.  As stated earlier, the process forces the brain to retrieve information from long term memory and can make future retrieval quicker.  It's effect can be very powerful (in one study students remembered 61% of information from repeated testing compared to 40% from repeated study - Henry L. Roediger, III, and Jeffrey D. Karpicke).  Adding tests as a starter, mid lesson activity or even plenary are very easy to organise and implement.  But what type of tests are best?  Although there are no sure fire answers, Bjork found the use of multiple choice tests to have a higher effect.  As Bjork explains “Little and E. L. Bjork (2010) argue that when students do not know the answer to a multiple-choice question, they may try to retrieve information pertaining to why the other answers are incorrect in order to reject them and choose the correct answer. It is this type of processing leads to the spontaneous recall of information pertaining to those incorrect alternatives, thus leading the multiple-choice test to serve as a learning event for both the tested and untested information.”  Therefore the use of multiple choice and working out the various options, helps improve the retrieval strength and subsequent long term retention.

Finally, Bjork identified that using tests and quizzes with students and their peers is a much better way of ingraining information to the long term memory than simply hitting the books.  I personally have already found this an outstanding revision tool as explained in an earlier post here.  Using testing as a desirable difficulty in the revision season can again increase retrieval strength.

11 - Final consideration: Mnemonics and other ‘tricks’ can help

Something we covered with students in our Learning to Learn course where simple memory tricks to help students remember information.  Now if there is information to be learnt, which requires little thought or seem meaningless together, a way to remember them is to use mnemonics or acronyms.  Because these pieces of information need to simply ‘be known’ in order to progress onto future learning, the use of these strategies can be very helpful in these instances.  So as Willingham explains, we shouldn’t be afraid to use them when suitable.  The same can be said for approaches like chunking.  If you don’t know what it is, it’s a method by memorising information by grouping things by association.  An example might be by remembering all of the fruit, then the stationary, and then the sports equipment from a long list of words.  The working memory works better when it isn’t overloaded.  By chunking numerous topics, this counts as one piece of information in the working memory, not several individual pieces.  It therefore makes for an effective, and efficient, quick little method to share in class.

If we believe what these principles say, by focusing on the way we plan in a slightly different way, we could be improving the chances that students learn information for the long run.  Hopefully these methods allow students retention rates to improve, rather then being forgotten only a few days, weeks or months later.

Links and further reading:

Why Don't Students Like School - Daniel T. Willingham


  1. You appear to have made a large number of assumptions about the nature of what 'learning' is. It would seem that much of the work you reference is centred on memory and embedding information. This is a highly reductionist view, and one that ignores much relevant research into 'intelligent' behaviour. Isn't the ability to ask searching questions of a deeper significance than knowing the 'answer' to a given 'question'?

    1. The ability to ask 'search questions' is entirely dependent on what you know. Try asking a search questions on a topic about which you know nothing? Tricky, isn't it?

      Building schema of related knowledge must be the primary concern of anyone interested in learning as opposed to gimmickry, and such schema will only be constructed if we remember stuff. My definition of learning is the ability to retain and transfer items of memory from one domain to another. Anything else is wishful thinking.

  2. I agree and if you read through the 30+ other posts that I have written you might see glimpses of what you are questioning. Learning is very complex, slow and sometimes messy. There are no one size fits all methods and definitely no miracle approaches. Thinking and delving deeper into topics is essential and a very important part of the process. I do however feel that having an understanding of what current cognitive science is saying can also be beneficial. If I try very hard to make students understand a topic but they forget it a few days, weeks or months later, having a rough idea of ways to make that information more memorable can only be a good thing surely? I see it as one of the many considerations of what is an extremely complicated process called learning.

  3. Memory is important in learning so understanding how it works is a lot better than a lot of subjective politics and religion that can pass for educational research.

  4. I found this article very useful - I've only read about half of it so far but already it's got my grey matter working and I will be delving deeper and attempting to use it in my teaching & planning imminently. Thank you for sharing your views and all this info with the masses & making it accessible.