“Memory is the mother of all wisdom” Aeschylus

“Mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how we use it” Brown et al

learning_styles 2

Cognitive science and research into how we learn is dominating many a blog/ twitter feed at the moment and rightly so, effective learning is our key priority as educators and anything which helps us to do this better and to understand the complex principles behind learning is of benefit to us and our students. I’ve been reading ‘Make it stick, The Science of successful learning’ by Peter Brown at al and what follows is a brief synopsis of the work of 3 cognitive scientists and shows how much of what we take as gospel about how we learn is largely a wasted effort.

Key principles:

  • All new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge.
  • When learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer.
  • Learning requires memory and learning is an acquired skill.
  • If learners spread out study of topics and return to these periodically they remember it better (spaced repetition of key ideas and interleaving of different but related topics).
  • Without knowledge you don’t have the foundation for higher level skills of analysis, synthesis and creative problem solving.
  • Learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal.



Useful strategies for learning better and remembering longer..

Learning tips for students: Throw away your highlighters and get the quizzes out!

1. Practice retrieving new learning from memory Retrieving knowledge through self quizzing is far more beneficial than simply re reading!. when you read text ask questions such as ‘What are the key ideas?’, ‘What ideas are new to me?’, ‘How do the ideas relate to what I already know?’. Set aside time throughout the school year to quiz yourself on the key material. Generate your own questions and write down the answers. The harder it is for you to recall new learning from memory the better. Periodically practicing the retrieval of new knowledge and skills through quizzing strengthens your learning of it.

2.  Space out your retrieval practice Establish a schedule of self quizzing that allows time to elapse between study sessions. It’s a common but mistaken belief that you can burn something into memory through continuous repetition. Lots of practice does work but only if it’s spaced. Use the method above and space out your study sessions, you will have to work harder to reload the learning from your long term memory.

3.  Interleave the study of different problem types If you’re studying Mathematical formulas, study more than one type at a time. Alternate between quizzing yourself on various problem types and retrieving the appropriate solutions for each. If you find yourself falling into single minded repetitive practice of a particular topic or skill, mix it up, mix in the practice of other subjects and skills.

Other useful tips:

  • Elaboration-Find additional layers of meaning in new material, relate the material to what you already know or explain it to somebody else in your own words. A powerful form of elaboration is to discover a metaphor or visual image for the new material.
  • Generation- Attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or solution. Wrestling with content beforehand makes learning stronger.
  • Reflection- Take a few minutes to review what has been learned and ask yourself questions, ‘what went well?’, ‘what could have gone better?’, ‘What other knowledge or experiences does it remind you of?’, What might you need to learn for better mastery?’.
  • Calibration- Use quizzes to see whether you know as much as you think you do. Highlight areas of weakness.
  • MNEMONICs- Like mental filing cabinets. Handy ways to store information and find it again when you need it.


Learning tips for teachers:

1. Explain to students how learning works It is the role of the teacher to keep up to date with the latest in academic research on how we learn and help students to understand the fundamental ideas and dispel the myths. Key ideas:

  • Some kinds of difficulties during learning help to make the learning stronger and better.
  • When learning is easy, it is often superficial and soon forgotten.
  • Not all of our intellectual abilities are hardwired. In fact when learning is effortful, it changes the brain, making new connections and increasing intellectual ability.
  • You learn better when you wrestle with new problems before being shown the solution, rather than the other way round.
  • To achieve excellence in any sphere, you must strive to surpass your current level of ability.
  • Setbacks are what provide the essential information needed to adjust strategies to achieve mastery.

2. Teach students how to study Teach your students the methods for effective study outlined above in the ‘Learning tips for students’. Re-reading, massed practice and cramming are the study strategies to avoid!

3.  Create desirable difficulties in your classroom Use frequent quizzing to help students to consolidate learning and interrupt the forgetting process. Design quizzing exercises that cover learning covered earlier in school year, space, interleave and vary topics so that students are frequently needing to reload what they already know about each topic in order to figure out how new material relates.

Further reading Cognitive Science

Children need to be taught Daniel Willingham

The restless relationship between Science and research Turnford School

Cognitive science in the classroom Joe kirby

Can I be that little bit better at using cognitive science to plan learning David Fawcett

How ‘why don’t students like school’ might help me teach (via David Bunker)

Using cognitive science to inform curriculum design (via Dan Brinton)


Rachael Edgar @Dubai_Teachmeet