How I use…. Cognitive Science in (Science) teaching

In July, Science teachers and Educators will meet at our school to talk about ways we can integrate Cognitive Science approaches into our Science teaching. One of the things we’d like to discuss is practical ideas: what it actually looks like when you apply these ideas within the classroom.

Sarah (our Head of Biology) has a strong background in Psychology, as well as in Science teaching, which means that she has integrated principles from CogSci into her practice for a while now. I’m sharing some of her ideas here.

Quizzing and retrieval

Frequent low-stakes testing appears to aid long-term retention and retrieval (read more about memory and retrieval here). Sarah has pre-prepared slides with prior-knowledge questions/ answers on. Each lesson begins with questions from recent lessons mixed up with questions from previous topics.

Students answer these in the back of their books. They complete them at the start of every lesson, and she has noticed that this has really helped engage and support underachieving boys.


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Supporting revision – planning and spacing

Sarah found that low-achieving pupils are sometimes reluctant to revise, and this is partly because they don’t know how to approach their revision in the first place. One of the things she has used to increase their “buy-in” to the process is to set structured programmes of daily tasks similar to the one shared here on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2017-06-13 at 16.27.19

Programmes like this use ideas such as spacing and retrieval of tasks, but they also help pupils to structure their revision and start it early. Furthermore, parents have something to use as a point of reference, and she can add links to the programme for pupils to access resources.

Supporting revision – “how to” tips from cognitive science

Sarah is careful to explain to students how to revise effectively, taking into account ideas such as working memory, metacognition and spacing/ retrieval/ forgetting. But one of the most important aspects of this support is that she demonstrates some of the ideas in action, so that pupils are more likely to take them onboard and apply them. For example, she uses memory games to explain about working memory and its limitations (you can read about working memory and cognitive load here):

She also gives revision tips and explains the reasoning behind them. For example:

  • Keep notes succinct and relevant. Don’t rewrite the entire textbook!
  • Don’t try to revise something you don’t actually understand.
  • Document your own errors, and use sources of common errors (eg. Examiners’ comments) to “get to know your enemy”.

And her understanding of cognitive science helps her to explain to students why it’s worth using the approaches she suggests.

  • Don’t leave your revision until the last minute- if you learn anything important in the middle, you are much less likely to remember it. Serial position effect is the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst. 
  • Revisit revision topics constantly –it takes longer to forget something the more times you revisit it.


In a later post, Sarah will outline some of these revision and study support ideas in more detail.


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