cognitive research

A DIY Guide to Teacher Professional Development

This essay can save you money and make you a better teacher. Few graduate programs offer extensive training in how to teach, and many offer none at all. When it comes to developing teaching skills, new faculty are often left on their own unless

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Practical Applications for Cognitive Strategies in the College Classroom

While there has been considerable interest in cognitive science in education, limited numbers of educators are using this information to inform teaching and learning. That’s according to Weinstein et al. (2018), who identify six effective cognitive learning strategies: spaced or distributed practice, interleaving, retrieval practice,

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More on Evidence-Based Teaching

In last week’s post, we looked at a sample of the discipline-based evidence in support of quizzes with the goal of gaining a better understanding of what it means to say that an instructional practice is evidence-based. We are using quizzes as the example, but

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This essay can save you money and make you a better teacher. Few graduate programs offer extensive training in how to teach, and many offer none at all. When it comes to developing teaching skills, new faculty are often left on their own unless they are fortunate enough to be on a campus with a good center for teaching and learning. Luckily, the past 25 years have seen an outpouring of resources on teaching in the form of books, blogs, journals, videos, and websites. Some must be purchased, but many are free. The topics and quality vary considerably, as do the authors’ background and the target audience. Some are based on research, others on personal teaching experience. It’s hard to know where to start. Every issue of The Teaching Professor is full of tips, ideas, and perspectives, but they may not apply to the problems you are currently facing in your teaching. The goal of this essay is to give you credible, accessible resources that address the cognitive challenges of teaching you are experiencing.

Bill Cerbin and I published a framework of the cognitive challenges of effective teaching (Chew & Cerbin, 2021; for a general overview, see Cerbin, 2022). These are the challenges that teachers and students must successfully negotiate for students to learn. There are nine challenges, and to help make the framework easier to understand, I have organized them into four categories. Table 1 shows the cognitive challenges associated with what students believe: student mental mindset, metacognition and self-regulation,and student fear and mistrust. The table lists a description and an example of each challenge. Table 2 shows the challenges arising from what students know, including lack of prior knowledge, misconceptions, and transfer of learning. Table 3 shows challenges related to what students can do. This category includes the constraints that the structure of human cognitive architecture imposes on learning—specifically, constraints of selective attention and constraints of mental effort and working memory. Finally, Table 4 shows the challenges associated with how students develop. They include ineffective learning strategies and metacognition and self-regulation.[1]

Cognitive ChallengesDescription and Example
Student Mental Mindset
  • Students hold attitudes and beliefs about a course, such as how interesting it will be and how hard they expect to work, that influence their motivation and perseverance.
  • Stefani hates science but has to take a general education science course, which is going to be a waste of time.
Metacognition and Self-regulation
  • Students make judgments about their level of mastery of concepts, and struggling students are often highly overconfident.
  • Tyson felt confident when he submitted his exam but was stunned when he barely passed it.
Student Fear and Mistrust
  • Students judge whether the teacher is supporting their learning or weeding out students who don’t belong in the class, which influences their motivation and perseverance.
  • Parisa made a C on her essay, and she knows it’s the teacher’s way of telling her that she doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in the class.
Table 1. What students believe
Cognitive ChallengeDescription and Example
Insufficient Prior Knowledge
  • Some students may start a class with far less prior knowledge than other students, which makes their learning much more difficult.
  • Elijah is the only student in his engineering class that didn’t take calculus in high school, because it wasn’t offered there.
  • Students often hold faulty or mistaken beliefs at the start of a course.
  • Because of videos he’d seen, Alvin thought that some people possessed psychic powers but was surprised to learn there was no scientific evidence for that belief.
Transfer of Learning
  • Students fail to apply what they learn to new situations.Tigran learned to calculate means and standard deviations in his statistics class, but in his research class, he claims he doesn’t know how to compute them.
Table 2. What students know
Cognitive ChallengesDescription and Example
Constraints of Selective Attention
  • Students can focus their attention on only a small portion of the environment and miss anything outside that focus.
  • Devin constantly texts his friends during class, thinking he can still follow the lecture. Later a classmate asks him about a concept covered in class, and Devin has no recollection of it at all.
Constraints of Mental Effort and Working Memory
  • Students have two major limitations in cognitive processing: the amount of concentration (mental effort) available to them and the capacity to hold information consciously (working memory).
  • Emma’s teacher introduces eight new concepts in rapid succession. Emma is overwhelmed and can’t keep the concepts straight. When she asks the teacher to explain the concepts again, he rolls his eyes and simply repeats what he said before.
Table 3. What students can do
Cognitive ChallengesDescription and Example
Ineffective Learning Strategies
  • Students generally prefer the least effective learning strategies for long-term learning.
  • Dawn thought that highlighting the key terms in her textbook would help her learn them, but she couldn’t remember them on the exam.
Metacognition and Self-regulation
  • Students need to learn how to use assessment and feedback to make changes in their study habits to be academically successful.
  • Isadora failed the first exam but decided it was just a fluke, so she prepared the same way for the second exam and failed again.
Table 4. How students develop

The framework is intended to give teachers the knowledge of how people learn that will make them better teachers. It isn’t so much about the actual practices of teaching, but it does tell you what you are trying to accomplish with those practices. Teachers can use the framework to plan for or diagnose issues they encounter as they teach and determine ways to address them. Below, I list relevant resources to learn more about each challenge.

The resources I share here all come from three open educational resources. There are many more resources available, but I chose these because they are both credible and free to access. The first resource is the website, maintained by Bill Cerbin. He provides an expanded discussion of resources for each cognitive challenge. I’m going to abbreviate this website as TLS. The next two resources are both extraordinary e-books published by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP). They are Applying Science of Learning in Education (Benassi et al., 2014), which I will refer to as ASLE, and In Their Own Words: What Scholars and Teachers Want You to Know about Why and How to Apply the Science of Learning in Your Academic Setting (Overson et al., 2023), which I will refer to as ITOW. The editors of these books gathered leading pedagogical researchers and had them contribute chapter summaries of their work intended to be accessible and useful for teachers. Tables 4–8 list the recommended sources to start exploring each challenge and possible solutions in more depth.

Cognitive ChallengesResources
Student Mental Mindset
Metacognition and Self-Regulation
Student Fear and Mistrust
Table 5. Resources for what students believe
Cognitive ChallengesResources
Lack of Prior Knowledge
  • TLS: “Prior Knowledge
  • ASLE: “Prior Knowledge Is More Than Content: Skills and Beliefs Also Impact Learning” (Ambrose & Lovett)
  • TLS: “Misconceptions
  • ASLE: “Student Misconceptions: Where Do They Come From and What Can We Do?” (Taylor & Kowalski)
Transfer of Learning
  • TLS: “Transfer of Learning
  • ITOW: “Different Goals Imply Different Methods: A Guide to Adapting Instructional Methods to Your Context” (Koedinger, Rau, & McLaughlin)
Table 6. Resources for what students know
Cognitive ChallengesResources
Constraints of Selective Attention
Constraints of Mental Effort and Working Memory
Table 7. Resources for what students can do
Cognitive ChallengesResources
Ineffective Learning Strategies
  • TLS: “Ineffective Learning Strategies
  • ASLE: “Test-Enhanced Learning” (Pyc, Agarwal, & Roediger)
  • ASLE: “Supporting Self-Explanation in the Classroom” (Chiu & Chi)
  • ASLE: “Spacing and Interleaving of Study and Practice” (Carpenter)
  • ASLE: “When and Why Introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction” (Clark & Bjork)
Metacognition and Self-Regulation
  • TLS: “Metacognition and Self-Regulation
  • ITOW: “How to Teach Powerful Strategies So That Students Self-Regulate Their Use: The KBCP Framework” (McDaniel & Einstein)
Table 8. Resources for how students develop

These resources are a good starting point for developing your knowledge of the cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The e-books I draw on here (Benassi et al., 2014; Overson et al., 2023) both contain a lot of other great information relevant to teaching, such as optimal ways to create multimedia presentations, how to design and use examples effectively, and how to give optimal feedback. There are also many other books, articles, blogs, and websites that offer excellent, research-based information. There is a lot of useful information in the resources. We should all continue to learn and improve our teaching.

[1] Metacognition and self-regulation are listed twice, under both “What Student Believe” and “How Students Develop.” The two concepts are linked, with metacognition relating more to what students believe and self-regulation relating more to what students do on the basis of that belief.


Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Cerbin, W. J. (2022, May 20). Cognitive challenges of effective teaching. Psychology Teacher Network.

Chew, S. L., & Cerbin, W. J. (2021). The cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The Journal of Economic Education, 52(1), 17–40.

Overson, C. E., Hakala, C. M., Kordonowy, L. L., & Benassi, V. A. (Eds.). (2023). In their own words: What scholars and teachers want you to know about why and how to apply the science of learning in your academic setting. Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: