Cognitive science has been claimed to underpin an increasing range of classroom practices in recent years.
These include spaced practice, interleaving, retrieval practice, elaboration, dual coding and cognitive load theory.
Cognitive science also forms a key part of the evidence underpinning the Ofsted Education Inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2019). And it is now embedded in the national professional qualifications frameworks, the current Teachers’ Standards for early career teachers and the associated early career teacher training programmes.
There are clear expectations that newly qualified teachers will be well informed about cognitive science, particularly concerning cognition, information storage and retrieval (ie, memory), and that they will develop skills to apply this knowledge in the classroom.
Huge amounts of creativity and expertise have gone into translating cognitive science to apply it far and wide in the classroom. Enthusiasm has been driven by an apparent impressive backing from basic scientific research into learning, memory and the brain.
This research, over several decades, has mostly taken place in and around psychology and neuroscience laboratories.
What we didn't know, until now, is whether ideas from cognitive science are also supported by research examining their impact in everyday classroom conditions, delivered by teachers, across the curriculum and for different pupil groups.
This is why the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) commissioned a review into research around the use of cognitive science in the classroom – the results of which we have published today.
A detailed overview
To conduct this research, we searched for all tests of cognitive science that were conducted in everyday classroom conditions, sifting through more than 40,000 papers using a systematic review process and analysing nearly 300 studies for our final analysis.
We also launched a questionnaire and conducted interviews, hearing from about 500 teachers, and we have studied a mountain of practice-facing guidance reports, books and professional development resources. So, what did we find?
Encouragingly, we concluded that cognitive science principles of learning can have a real impact on rates of learning in the classroom.
Many cognitive science strategies are supported by the applied evidence, albeit often tentatively, with small effects and with reservations about applicability across subjects, pupil ages, and teaching and learning conditions.
Overall, we believe there is value in teachers having a working knowledge of cognitive science principles.
A complex picture
However, the evidence from the classroom research is far more limited and provides a less positive, and more complex, picture than the basic science.
The applied evidence base that we have systematically reviewed inspires only moderate, low and sometimes very low confidence in the weight of evidence supporting the individual strategies themselves.
While this lack of confidence stems mostly from scarcity of evidence, it also reflects numerous studies with mixed results that do not provide definitive support for the core cognitive science principles. The applied evidence is slight, complex and patchy.
We had to qualify many of our findings with caution about their applicability in terms of age group and subject. Strikingly, much of the evidence base focused on secondary and upper-primary mathematics and science.
There was very little evidence testing applicability of the prominent cognitive science strategies for early years children. Gaps in ages and subjects represented in the evidence have significant implications for the confidence, scale and areas in which cognitive science can be implemented while remaining true to the evidence.
Overall, we found a relatively small and weak evidence base spread thinly across a large number of ideas and strategies.
When it works
Our evidence does support the use of worked examples in secondary maths and science, as well as cognitive load management through scaffolding and support in key stages 2 to 4 maths, science and reading comprehension.
Interleaving looked promising for specific applications in KS2-3 maths, and spaced learning evidence revealed a small positive effect if teachers can overcome practical challenges (eg, around timetabling and planning).
Retrieval practice was generally supported in the evidence, although most studies were delivered by researchers in scripted, “set piece” lessons – and it is uncertain whether retrieval practice is effective beyond factual recall and vocabulary learning.
The evidence relating to dual coding and the use of visual aids was mixed, suggesting that visual aids are helpful during learning but frequently have no effect, and can sometimes be harmful. Images that are decorative are less likely to support learning than those that are informational.
There were also gaps in what did and did not receive attention. Social, emotional and physical aspects to cognition and learning receive less attention in our current account of cognitive science.
This does not appear justified by the basic cognitive science evidence and what we know about the brain and learning.
Furthermore, our present model of cognitive science has fixated on an “information processing” and individual model of learning rather than one that grapples with the “messiness” of the classroom and its chatter, movement and feeling.
Cognitive science isn’t going away soon, nor should it. It represents a great opportunity for the profession draw on and establish a knowledge base with a footing in the science of learning.
A growth area
The present danger is that this evidence gets lost in translation and understood in isolation from everything else we know about teaching and learning.
The picture provided by studies of cognitive science in the classroom is a complex one, with many uncertainties and gaps.
But it does provide a wealth of questions and answers for those wanting to move forward our understanding of this important area of pedagogical theory and practice. There is great value in doing so.
You can find the summary report and main report here. Dr Thomas Perry is lead author on the new EEF report on cognitive science in the classroom research, and an education researcher and lecturer at the University of Birmingham