Thinking About Learning: Cognitive Science for Teachers (Part 1)

As teachers and professionals, we continually reflect on how we can improve the outcomes for our students. However, when coping with a full curriculum, a packed school calendar and the many additional requirements of being a teacher, finding time to engage with educational research can be a challenge. This is the first in a series of posts in which I will share current ideas about how learning works and introduce, or reintroduce, to you some research-backed approaches to learning and teaching that have been shown to be effective. 

In this series, I will explore: 

  1. How Learning Happens
  2. How Memory Works
  3. Chunking and Mental Representations
  4. Why Forgetting is Good
  5. The Testing Effect
  6. Overlearning 
  7. Massed, spaced and interleaved practice

I hope that most of what I discuss will sound like common sense, though some might feel counter-intuitive.  You may have heard much of what is covered before and a lot of it you might even be doing already.  Regardless of your current position, I hope this series of posts gives you some food for thought as to how (even small) changes can make an impact on your students. It is important to note that I don鈥檛 have the perfect model. I constantly refine what I do in light of my own and others鈥 research. I aim to do more of what works and less of what doesn鈥檛. All the ideas discussed are backed by research but should be tried and tested in your context, then modified and tested again until they give the best outcomes for your learners.

Throughout this series, we will see some key themes appearing, namely鈥

鈼        Learning is difficult and requires effort

鈼        There is no limit to what we can learn

鈼        Learning is a function of memory, knowledge and motivation

鈼        Learning requires attention

鈼        Learning requires practice

鈼        Learning is about making connections

To kick off, let鈥檚 look at how learning works鈥

The science bit

The science bit

Relatively recent advances in neuroscience, such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), have allowed us to deepen our understanding of the chemical and biological processes involved in learning. Unsurprisingly, it is a complicated process. However, at its most basic, learning can be thought of as 鈥渁 relatively permanent change in a neuron within the brain鈥 (Shell, 2010). All neurons have an input and an output. A neuron 鈥渇ires鈥, i.e. it produces an electrical output, in response to being 鈥渇ired鈥 upon by other neurons. The input end of a neuron can be connected to many other neurons. With sufficient input, a neuron will send biochemicals to other neurons connected to its output end. The connections between neurons are known as synapses. The more a neuron fires the easier it is for it to fire again. When connected neurons fire together, the connection between them is strengthened. This process is the essence of learning. It is in this way that the brain 鈥済rows鈥. 

What is knowledge?

What is knowledge?

Knowledge can be defined as 鈥渆verything that we know鈥 (Shell, 2010). This means facts and ideas but also includes 鈥減roblem-solving skills, motor behaviours and thinking processes鈥. Knowledge is stored in long-term memory and is essentially everything that we know or can do. Learning takes place when our stored knowledge increases or is changed and is the outcome of processing in working memory. Knowledge also influences working memory as the more you know about something, the easier it is to construct new and more complex knowledge about it. This is sometimes referred to as the 鈥淢atthew Effect鈥 鈥 essentially the more knowledge you have, the more knowledge you can accrue.

The tide is high

The process of successful learning is often messy and it is certainly non-linear, sharing similarities with the incoming tide. When watching the tide roll in, we often see sporadic waves that make their way far up the beach, resembling our initial encounters with new knowledge. Each wave represents a unique piece of information or experience; however, it inevitably recedes, temporarily leaving the shore exposed until the arrival of the next wave. It is not uncommon for subsequent waves to fall short of reaching the same point, in the same way meeting new knowledge does not mean it has been learnt. However, over time, as waves overlap and combine, a gradual progression is seen, mirroring the accumulation of knowledge and of learning taking place.

That鈥檚 all for now. Check back soon for more.

Thanks for reading!



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