When I get asked "what do you do?" by well-meaning strangers, my answer often flummoxes them: "I apply cognitive psychology to education." Do what? The blank expression I'm often faced with is my cue to break it down into something that actually makes sense.
Here's what people in my field do: we take basic principles of the mind such as memory, attention, and perception, and then we build learning and teaching strategies based on what we know about these processes. We believe that any teacher who's interested in helping students learn can benefit from understanding the cognitive processes involved in learning.
So, what kinds of cognitive processes am I talking about, and how can understanding them help us inform our teaching? For example, we know that our working memories are very short (only 15-30 seconds long), so we shouldn't expect our students to be able to hold much information in mind at any one time.
We also know that our ability to pay attention fades quite rapidly over time, so even 20 minutes into a lesson, more students might be thinking about their dinner than about the lesson's content. We might also recognize that humans are prone to biases and illusions, so something as trivial as changing the order of questions on a test can affect how well a student thinks they performed.
But before I go on, here are a few important disclaimers. Alas, cognitive psychologists can't...
- Tell you exactly how much your students are going to remember on a given test on a given day
- Provide "solutions" to "fix" educational problems
- "Guarantee" that a certain strategy is going to work
In fact, if someones says any of the above, they're lying - and probably trying to sell you something.
Instead, here is what we can do:
- Amass lots and lots of evidence demonstrating that some learning and teaching strategies work better than others in most situations
- Come up with flexible guiding principles based on this evidence
- Answer teachers' questions about learning by running scientific studies
The last point is very important, and is one of the main reasons why we started the Learning Scientists project. Because what's the point of applying cognitive psychology to education, when no educators are interested in the applications? We want to ask research questions whose answers are going to be useful to teachers, and the best way we can think of to do this is by talking to teachers (if you can think of some other ways, do let us know!).
This is why we've been reaching out to schools around the world to discuss our work and get input into the challenges teachers face in the classroom that might be helped with information from cognitive psychology.