The Cognitive Challenges That Complicate Learning

Credit: Flem
Credit: Flem
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:

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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:

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).

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?

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).

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).

Challenge 5: Misconceptions

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

“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).

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).

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).