The science of learning

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How can cognitive science make us better teachers? Matt Bromley dissects the four stages of the cognitive process and discusses the implications for your classroom.

Learning is a complex cognitive process which, broadly speaking, occurs in four stages: 

  1. Attention.

  2. Encoding. 

  3. Storage. 

  4. Retrieval.

Let’s take a look at each of these four stages in turn...

1, Attention

Samuel Johnson said that “the true art of memory is the art of attention”. If we are to be effective as teachers we should think carefully about how our lessons will gain and retain our students’ attentions. In order to be attentive to a task, students must be motivated by it and must believe that making an effort will pay-off.

There are two main types of attention: goal-oriented and stimulus-oriented. Goal-oriented attention is gained through motivation, curiosity, and other self-driven forces – in other words, we actively attend to something – and is retained through intent. Stimulus-oriented attention is gained through the sensory stimuli that surround us – in other words, our response to sights, sounds and smells – and is retained subconsciously, thus overriding our goal-oriented attention.

These goal-oriented and stimulus-oriented attention-grabbers operate at the same time and our ability to regulate them, i.e. to stay focused on our goal-directed attention and limit the influence of our stimulus-driven attention, is one of the keys to learning.

2, Encoding

When our brains are exposed to new information they process it then attempt to connect it to existing information (in other words, our brains try to assimilate new knowledge with prior knowledge in an attempt to provide a context within which to make sense of it).

The richer – sensorily and emotionally – the new information is, and the deeper the existing information is engrained, the more strongly new information will be encoded in our memories. We can infer from this that effective learning is the result of two things:

The first is multi-sensory and emotional experiences. The richer our sensory-emotional experience of new information, the more deeply we will encode it. For instance, if we are made to feel something, we are more likely to encode new information. So rather than tell students something, let them see it and feel it for themselves. 

Making ideas concrete makes them more credible. For example, we could just tell students that if they pour hydrogen peroxide into a bottle, add one tablespoon of liquid soap, and then pour a yeast-and-water mixture into the bottle through a funnel, a fountain of foam will shoot out of the bottle, but they might not believe us or even care. They’re certainly unlikely to remember this information later.

But if we show them a clip of “elephant toothpaste” on YouTube (go on, take a look) or – even better – get them to perform the experiment for themselves, they are less likely to forget it later.

The second is contextualised information (prior knowledge). When we have strong, vivid prior knowledge about a subject, we have easier access and greater insight into any new knowledge related to that subject that we acquire. In other words, when we have previous experience of something, we can encode new information about it more effectively and more richly. This is a good point at which to take a slight detour into schema theory...

According to Harvey & Goudvis (2000), schema theory is the notion that our previous experiences, knowledge, and emotions affect what and how we acquire new information.

In the case of reading comprehension, for example, schema is the kind of background knowledge and experience we bring to a new text. 

Experienced readers draw on prior knowledge and experience to help them understand what they are reading, and then they use that knowledge to help them make new connections. 

Less experienced readers, however, often read through a text without stopping to consider whether or not the text makes any sense to them based on their own background knowledge, and do not consider whether or not their knowledge can be used to help them understand confusing or challenging ideas and words.

It follows therefore that teaching students how to connect a new text to their prior knowledge will help them to better comprehend what they are reading.

Keene and Zimmerman (1997) say that we should teach students to make three types of connections: how to connect a new text – though this theory could be applied to any form of information – to their own experiences (text to self), to other texts they’ve read (text to text), and to the wider world (text to world).

Before we progress to the third of our four stages of memory – storage – let’s take a further detour into working memory, because increasing our knowledge of working memory will provide the prior knowledge we will need in order to understand the storage and retrieval stages better...

We store lots of information in our long-term memories and recall it from there into our working memories when we need to access the information. Allow me to demonstrate...

Imagine George Clooney at the wheel of a luxury yacht which is circling an island paradise made of golden sands and palm trees. Don’t read on until you’ve conjured up this image. Got it? Great...

Until I mentioned it, images of George Clooney, a yacht, and an island were stored in your long-term memory. You weren’t thinking about those images until I mentioned them but they were hidden away, stowed from previous experiences.

When I asked you to conjure up those images, you retrieved them from your long-term memory and transported them into your working memory where you could access them and forge new connections between them (you might never have imagined George Clooney sailing a yacht around an island before but you made those connections in order to create the image I asked of you).

When you made those connections there was an interaction between your environment (what I was saying to you) and your working memory (dragging dusty images from your long-term memory into your working memory where you can think about them). This interaction is when we learn; it is when we encode information.

It is useful for teachers to understand this process because our classrooms and what we do in them act as the environment, and what our students pay attention to determines what information they drag into their working memories.

If we are to stimulate our students we must engage them in questioning and encourage them to engage with their environment. We should return to prior learning, strengthening it, contextualising it, and making new connections with it.

3, Storage

A memory is a neural connection. Thoughts and experiences build connections between the billions of neurones in our brains, establishing new networks and patterns.

Neural connections fade away if they are neglected but can get stronger with repeated use because repetition leads to neural habits of thought. In other words, making associations strengthens our memories. The number of connections we make influences the number of times memories are revisited, which in turn influences the length of time we retain a memory. When we connect different pieces of information with each other, we retain them for longer, because we retrieve them more often. 

It follows that the more often we connect what we are teaching today to what we taught previously, the better the information will be learnt. Equally, the more we connect what we’re teaching today to contextual information (text-to-self, text-to-text, text-to-world, etc) the better our students will learn.

Let’s take another slight detour before we return to the last of our four stages of learning – retrieval...

There are two parts of the brain which are of importance to memory: the cortex and the hippocampus. The cortex plays a big part in our conscious thought and in processing information in our working memories. The hippocampus plays a big part in the formation of long-term memories (i.e. in the transition of information from the working memory to the long-term memory). Without the hippocampus we wouldn’t be able to establish new long-term memories.

Sleep is crucial to this process because, when we are asleep, the cortex and the hippocampus become very active. In the first hour or two of sleep, our memories are consolidated in the hippocampus and processed for long-term storage.

Over the course of the next three or four hours, memories are transferred to the cortex where they are retained in our long-term memories. After around six hours’ sleep, the brain starts to replay memories in the cortex. This is called REM sleep. 

Scientists believe that sleeping more – say, up to nine hours – improves our memory performance by up to a quarter. Our attention span increases when we have more sleep, too, so some of the best advice that you can give your students is to go to bed earlier. It’s easier than revising and yet just as effective!

4, Retrieval

Being forgetful is a good thing. For example, I’m delighted I’ve been able to forget most of the things I said and did when I was behaving badly in my late teens. And indeed through most of my 20s. And 30s.

After all, if I hadn’t forgotten such things, I might not be able to look at myself in the mirror or, worse still, climb atop the moral high ground from where I can throw stones of piety at the unethical valley of youth below.

Forgetting is good because it helps us to stay focused. If we were incapable of forgetting, we’d become overloaded with information and our brains would simply erupt like a volcano, hot molten brain-lava shooting from the tops of our heads. Perhaps.

For teachers, the act of forgetting means that, even if we are able to sustain our students’ attention, even if we are able to help our students encode information more richly, and even if we are able to create opportunities for our students to consolidate that information, they will still forget things.

In fact, we forget half of the information that enters our working memories every hour, and two-thirds of the information we process disappears every day. So we mustn’t beat ourselves up when students can’t remember everything we said in the previous lesson. It is natural and it is healthy.

But there are things we can do as teachers to help our students retrieve important information more easily. One of those things is to plan learning in such a way as to allow “interleaving”.

Interleaving means placing something between the layers of something else. In this context, it is the act of repeating information periodically but with spaces in-between where other information is learnt.

Interleaving is the opposite of cramming – rather than focusing on one topic for a long period of time and never returning to it again, interleaving focuses on each topic for a shorter period of time, but returns to it several times in-between studying other topics.

Each time we return to information, we increase its storage strength and improve our ability to retrieve it. The more times we review and relearn information, the better able we are to retain it over time.

In summary

Repeatedly retrieving information from our long-term memories improves the strength with which such information is stored. The more we retrieve information, the stronger the memory becomes. If we retrieve a memory in order to connect prior knowledge to new information, the memory is strengthened even further.

In practice, this means we should plan opportunities for our students not only to revise information they have previously learnt, but to reorganise that information by writing about it or talking about it.

Our students will forge new connections if they retrieve information from their long-term memories and re-encode it with new information. And the more connections our students make between similar types of memories, the more easily they will be able to retrieve those memories later in much the same way as I can more easily find the CD I want to play because I have organised them in alphabetical order rather than hidden them individually around the house. At least that’s what I tell visitors when they stand in astonishment at my display of OCD.


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