The Cognitive Challenges That Complicate Learning

Credit: Flem
Credit: Flem

Editor’s note: The following article is part of a resource collection called It’s Worth Discussing, in which we feature research articles that are especially suitable for personal reflection and group discussion with your colleagues.

The article

Chew, S. L., & Cerbin, W. J. (2021). The cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The Journal of Economic Education, 51(1), 17–40.

A synopsis

This detailed article proposes a research-based conceptual model of how students learn. It identifies nine cognitive challenges that stand in the way of learning:

  • Mental mindset
  • Metacognition and self-regulation
  • Student fear and mistrust
  • Insufficient prior knowledge
  • Misconceptions
  • Ineffective learning strategies
  • Transfer of learning
  • Constraints of selective attention
  • Constraints of mental effort and working memory

A student’s learning may be prevented or diminished by one or several of these challenges.

Superbly organized and extensively referenced, the article introduces each challenge with a short narrative example and then provides a discussion of the challenge. Specific teaching practices are recommended and additional resources noted.

The article merits review and discussion for a variety of reasons. It also explores how the nine challenges hinder learning and complicate teaching. Despite the complexities of learning and teaching, the piece rests on the premise that effective teaching grows from an accurate and detailed understanding of how learning happens. The focus on a range of strategies and techniques teachers can use in response to these cognitive challenges makes the article an empowering piece of scholarship.

Discussion groups might consider working through all the challenges in several separate sessions. Even though the article is published in a discipline-based pedagogical periodical, the challenges affect student efforts to learn in every field. Here’s a collection of quotations and discussion questions for four of the challenges as well as the conclusion.

Quotations and discussion questions

Challenge 3: Student fear and mistrust

“Fear is a negative emotional response to a specific, observable situation. Whether the situation poses a real or perceived threat does not matter. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a more diffuse negative emotional response to some possible future event. Students may have math anxiety, but they fear taking a required calculus course” (p. 23).

  • Students do fear failure in any number of courses. At the same time, they frequently underestimate the difficulty of college-level coursework. How do teachers get students to take courses seriously but without causing debilitating fear of failure?
  • Are there ways students can help each other confront fears about learning?

The authors write, “One remedy for student fear is student trust in the teacher,” which they define as “students’ willingness to take risks based on their judgment that the teacher is committed to student success” (p. 23).

How do teachers uphold high standards while also conveying their commitment to student success?

  • Can assignments be designed that encourage modest risk-taking? If so, offer an example.

Challenge 4: Insufficient prior knowledge

“Relevant prior knowledge is the foundation on which new learning is built. Insufficient prior knowledge is a significant cause of learning difficulties. Gaps in relevant background knowledge make it more difficult to interpret, organize, and remember information” (pp. 24–25).

  • Should teachers review material that students should have learned in previous courses or content that was covered in earlier class sessions? What reasons do and don’t justify teachers’ reviewing material for students?
  • Does the responsibility for reviewing change if students come to college without the necessary prior knowledge?

Many teachers use quizzes to redress issues of preparedness and to promote regular review. “Studies . . . have found that students are more likely to complete practice quizzes and reading quizzes if they are low stakes [worth a small amount of course credit]” (p. 25).

  • How much should quizzes count for if they are being used to review assigned readings or content covered previously? Do students take them seriously if they don’t count for much?
  • What quizzing strategies most effectively build new knowledge foundations? For example, what about discussing answers immediately after taking the quiz; students taking quizzes using their notes or the text (or both); or students doing quizzes in groups?

Challenge 5: Misconceptions

“Misconceptions are common occurrences, formed by exposure to inaccurate information, faulty reasoning, or misinterpreting information” (p. 25).

  • Are teachers as aware of common student misunderstandings as they should be? Do teachers accidently discover student misconception or purposely pursue them?

“Some misconceptions are minor errors in understanding that can be corrected easily or that students may resolve on their own. A more difficult problem is that some misconceptions are resistant to change and significant barriers to learning” (p. 25).

  • What’s behind students’ resistance to correct what they’ve incorrectly understood?
  • The authors recommend “refutational teaching,” which involves assigned reading that explains and contradicts the misconception, followed by a lecture that does the same. In your experience, is direct refutation effective? Do other approaches work better? If so, how about an example?
  • How can teachers help students confront misconceptions without making them feel stupid or defensive? What if the misconceptions are less about facts than about beliefs?

Challenge 7: Transfer of learning

“Transfer of learning, in which students apply what they have learned appropriately in novel contexts, is the gold standard of learning. . . . Much knowledge gained in courses remains inert; it is not accessed or used beyond the immediate course in which it was learned” (p. 27).

  • Is part of the transfer problem that students do not see the usefulness of what they’ve learned? How much of that is a learning problem, and how much of it a teaching problem? Is the value of what we teach so obvious that we have trouble imagining students unable to see its relevance?
  • The authors recommend presenting concepts in ways similar to how they are used or applied. How might that work with the content you teach?
  • What about the transfer of learning between courses? Could teachers be doing a better job of connecting content from one course to another—showing how the skills and knowledge acquired in one course can be used in another?

In summary: Effective teaching

“Effective, skilled teaching involves reaching as many of the less knowledgeable, less motivated students as possible and developing them into well-informed, keen learners of our discipline” (p. 2).

“The preponderance of pedagogical research shows that effective teachers can reach many more students if the teachers understand the principles of learning” (p. 2).

  • The second quotation implies that the principles of learning are not as well-known as they could be. Do you agree? Should the focus be less on effective teaching and more on understanding learning?
  • At some point the responsibility for learning rests with the student. Where does the teacher’s responsibility for student learning end?

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