Lessons for learning: How cognitive psychology informs classroom practice

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Lessons for learning: How cognitive psychology informs classroom practice

Pooja K. Agarwal and Henry L. Roediger III 

November 26, 2018

Laboratory science and classroom observation reveal four simple strategies that can promote learning.

Because learning is an incredibly complex behavior, the science of learning includes many topics: how we learn and remember information in school, how we learn from the environment around us, how our actions influence what we remember, and so on. With this in mind, it’s useful to think of learning scienceas an umbrella term that spans many research fields including psychology, computer science, and neuroscience. Our own research sits in the field of cognitive science or, more specifically, cognitive psychology. The word cognition comes from the Latin word for “to know,” and cognition refers to “behind-the-scenes” behaviors like perceiving, attending, remembering, thinking, and decision making. In cognitive psychology, we typically examine mental operations, or behaviors occurring inside our heads.

Cognitive psychology examines processes we engage in every day without stopping to reflect on the complex series of behaviors that determine our success or failure. For example, have you ever talked on a cell phone while driving a car? Many complex cognitive operations are involved in both of these activities (and there’s plenty of research demonstrating it’s dangerous to attempt both at once!). Another example: You meet someone at a party and later you remember details about your new friend — where they live, where they work, and so on — but you struggle to remember their name. Strategies informed by cognitive psychology can help you remember names, concepts, and much more, and they have powerful roles to play in the classroom, too.

In contrast to cognitive psychology, research on social-emotional learning (e.g., growth mind-sets and character development) investigates how we interact with the world around us; in other words, what happens outside our heads. This field comprises social and personality psychology, and social psychologists examine behaviors such as how we develop relationships, how we’re affected by culture, and why we form stereotypes. Of course, the distinction is a bit artificial because influences from the environment (such as stereotypes) are carried in our heads and so also depend on cognition. In other words, cognition affects how we behave in the outside world, and the environment around us affects the behaviors inside our heads.

While research on learning — arguably the most complex cognitive process — can be based on observations, surveys, or correlations, most of our research in cognitive psychology is experimental. We use experiments to examine how students learn everything from basic facts and vocabulary words to how students apply their knowledge using complex higher-order materials (Agarwal, in press). Or we might compare popular study methods, such as rereading or highlighting, to see which ones lead to longer-lasting learning. (It turns out that both rereading and highlighting are fairly ineffective; Putnam et al., 2016)

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