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, elaboration, concrete examples, and dual coding. Metacognition, awareness about how we think, is an important aspect of implementing these cognitive strategies.
The research has led me to explicitly address cognitive strategies with learners as they need to learn how and why their studying can be more effective and efficient. When they understand the cognitive science behind the strategies, they are much more willing to incorporate them. Once developed, these strategies can be transferred to other areas of education and employment. Below I outline each cognitive strategy, provide examples of its use in an introductory literature course, and give practical applications for in-class and independent study. I have tried to create and select activities that are engaging and build autonomy, agency, and accountability.
Spaced practice and SMART goals
Spaced practice features careful scheduling of learning over an extended period of time, as opposed to cramming, which occurs over a short period of time. Spaced practice increases retention and retrieval of information. Although cramming is a popular method of studying, Bjork and Bjork (2011) have established that it does not lead to meaningful long-term learning. Additionally, in college and university classes, material is often introduced and not addressed again, which cognitive science research has shown to inhibit long-term learning.
In our introductory literature class, learners work in groups on a text and then independently at home on a micro-assessment. In the next class, we have a “60-second summary” of the text to further consolidate learning. I make the value of spaced learning explicit, emphasizing that it creates deeper understanding of a text.
To strengthen spaced learning, learners create three personalized SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound) learning goals. They should base these on an assessment that has determined strengths and areas for development. The assessment may be part of the coursework or an outside form of assessment and will vary considerably depending on the discipline.
- Learners create the goals in class in small groups and ask for peer feedback to ensure the goals are SMART.
- They email the instructor their goals, which should include a schedule, and the instructor feedback should address spaced learning. Are learners completing goals on days when the class does not meet?
- The goals can be modified throughout the term if they are too demanding or not demanding enough.
- Once learners establish mastery in an area, they can change the goals. Mastery needs to be determined objectively via course assessments or self-testing.
- Weekly check-ins: Learners have a brief weekly check-in with their group, which increases accountability. They must be very honest with themselves about whether they have met their goals for the week. If they have not, they must determine what they need to do to meet them the following week.
- Midterm check-in: Learners email the instructor in the middle of the term to reflect on their progress. Learner honesty is essential for the instructor to provide appropriate guidance.
- SMART goals take time to establish and maintain, but they promote autonomy.
Interleaving and engaging in-class tasks
Like spaced learning, one common form of interleaving involves scheduling, but it requires changing study topics in one discipline in a single block of study time. The argument for the efficacy of interleaving is that it requires learners to choose and apply an appropriate method to address different types of problems. Another popular type of interleaving is alternating between studying an example of a solved problem and then solving a problem, as opposed to separating problem solving from studying.
Learners look at several literary texts and identify the different types of irony. By seeing irony in multiple contexts, learners internalize the characteristics of each form.
- Learners can apply interleaving when they create their SMART goals, or the instructor could encourage them to use interleaving halfway through the term and notice whether it improves their studying or evaluation.
- Practice interleaving in class. There are many fun online timers, and color-coding materials can help with task organization.
Retrieval and game-based learning
Retrieval requires remembering, which is the most basic but most fundamental cognitive skill. Retrieval strategies are important because they strengthen memory. But Weinstein et al. (2018) argue that anxiety about tests may negatively affect retrieval as learners associate retrieval tasks with testing. Instructors can mitigate this anxiety by using more frequent low-stakes evaluation.
I use a variety of graphic organizers to help learners retrieve, analyze, and evaluate information in our literature class. Graphic organizers can be colorful, creative, and personalized. They can be created on paper, online, and in groups on whiteboards, with other groups touring and adding or commenting on work. This creates a collaborative environment and increases confidence as learners can contribute to topics they are knowledgeable about.
- Use game-based activities—such as Jeopardy, Quizlet, and Kahoot!—or laminated cards with matching components. Points and small prizes can encourage participation.
- Learners write practice quizzes for one another. If the course has an exam, they can create a mock exam, further familiarizing themselves with the exam format.
Elaboration and modeling of academic reading
Elaboration requires making connections between previous and existing knowledge. When learners consider how new material relates to previously learned material, learning is consolidated and enriched. Elaborative interrogation requires actively thinking about the how and why behind concepts, with an emphasis on meaning. Self-explanation is another beneficial form of elaboration requiring the explanation of concepts, and this can be done independently or in a group.
Studying literature involves deep questioning of a text. Getting learners to move beyond the what of the plot to the why and how of the themes requires frequent redirection over the term. This learner training for critical thinking can occur in class and more formally on assessment feedback. Comparing and contrasting literary elements across texts also deepens learning. To concept check understanding of dramatic elements and the play we cover, learners elaborate on the play by writing a new ending and performing it as a radio play.
- Show how educators interrogate a text by providing a marked-up text with questions and notes in the margin or on post its and a written summary at the end. Practice this in class as this helps demystify the process.
- Create or find a video outlining and modelling how educators approach reading a text or discussing it in an academic seminar. These skills can also be explicitly taught in class with learners demonstrating them for their peers.
- Learners analyze and evaluate case studies critically.
Concrete examples and learner-created resources
Concrete examples ground and anchor abstract content, making it easier to understand and remember. They also enhance the ability to make connections between topics (Weinstein et al., 2018). Analyzing the structure of concrete examples also increases learning. Selecting several appropriate examples related to the key concepts is crucial. If the examples are distracting, learners may remember only the example or its surface structure and not the concept.
Learners find concrete examples to demonstrate key concepts in the literary text. They can find an image or take a photo that is analogous to the text and must clearly justify their decisions.
- Include more concrete examples in notes, activities, and lectures. Unsuitable or incorrect examples could be used with learners analyzing why.
- Have learners find, create, or evaluate examples to concept check understanding of terms, theories, and concepts.
Dual coding and poster presentations
Images are easier to remember than words, and this is particularly true for complex processes (Eitel & Scheiter, 2015). When images are combined with text, memory becomes stronger, enabling better learning. The choice of dual-coding items must enhance learning, and if they are too complex or ambiguous, they can have a negative effect on memory. Additionally, Wammes et al. (2016) found that when learners created drawings, it further aided learning.
Learners make creative visual representations, for example, drawings or collages, to demonstrate their understanding of literary elements or the texts or both. They also provide a rationale connecting their work and creative decisions to the course content. I provide a detailed rubric to clearly delineate marking criteria.
- Give learners images and have them create the accompanying text or vice versa. After you provide feedback, you can use these as class resources.
- Learners do poster presentations as these feature both images and text. They can look at the posters independently or do presentations with a speed-dating or elevator-pitch format.
- Learners create animated videos, which they can share in an online discussion forum.
It is highly rewarding to see students respond positively to the cognitive strategies, and I am eager to learn more as new cognitive science research emerges. I also look forward to developing additional activities to promote deeper learning and engagement in my classes.
Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society (pp. 56–64). Worth Publishers.
Eitel, A., & Scheiter, K. (2015). Picture or text first? Explaining sequential effects when learning with pictures and text. Educational Psychology Review, 27(1), 153–180. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-014-9264-4
Wammes, J. D., Meade, M. E., & Fernandes, M. A. (2016). The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69(9), 1752–1776. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2015.1094494
Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeraki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3, Article 2. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-017-0087-y
Laura Hadwin is an English language instructor at Camosun College. She is interested in teacher beliefs, identity, and creativity. She has taught and delivered teacher training in South Korea, Spain, the UK, Turkey, Qatar, and Mexico.