Use Cognitive Research to Enhance Teaching: Practice at Retrieval

Welcome back!  One of my New Year’s resolutions is to get the blog up and running again, so I hope this post will be the first of several this semester.

As scholars, we are always looking for high quality research related to our disciplines and the courses we teach.  Why not apply that lens to learning?  The field of cognitive psychology has developed dramatically over the past 20 years or so, and we now have quite a large body of research describing how people learn.  I don’t want to overwhelm you with data, so I am going to create a series of posts that describe nine primary principles of learning and how they apply in our classrooms.

The nine principles and some of the examples in these posts come from the Lifelong Leaning at Work and at Home initiative website.  This initiative was started by a group of cognitive researchers dedicated to applying cognitive science research to lifelong learning and higher education.   The website has detailed links to more in-depth information and references if you would like to dig deeper.

This just means that students need multiple opportunities to recall and use information or skills that you want them to remember after your class is over.  If students merely re-read notes or books without practicing retrieving what they have heard and read, they will not retain that material for long.  My first reaction to this statement was “well, duh” but the “single most important” label made me pay more attention, as well as the mention of transfer.

If this statement is correct (and there is quite a lot of research to back it up) what does it imply for the classroom?  What can we do to help students practice retrieving important information?  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Align your classroom activities, assignments and tests so that students must repeatedly access the same information.  For example, ask students questions that require them to recall and demonstrate understanding of material from earlier in the course.  You may want to pose a probing question and have everyone write down a response before you ask for volunteers – that way the entire class gets to practice retrieving information.  Otherwise, only the individuals called on will be engaging in this important task.  This technique also allows you to correct any misunderstanding and it shows students the cumulative nature of learning.  At first, you may get blank stares but if you do this consistently students are more likely to get the message.
  • Test repeatedly on the same material.  My undergraduate self hated the cumulative final exam with great passion, but it is an excellent method for promoting long term retention and retrieval – but only if the material has already been tested earlier in the semester.   You also can get this effect by using chapter quizzes and then repeating important material on exams.  Even giving a unit exam on the last day of class and then a cumulative final a week later will help with retention of recently presented information.   Research suggests that spacing the testing out across the semester leads to better results, and that for maximum effect recall should be somewhat delayed.  As we have probably all experienced, testing or recall efforts that occur immediately after teaching or reading material tends to produce short term positive effects that disappear quickly.   So you might want to start by giving a reading quiz perhaps a week after the reading was discussed in class.  Questions on the same material could appear on a mid-term or be incorporated into a later assignment and then tested again on a comprehensive final.  For maximum effect, the student should be using recall methods like short answer questions or essays and not recognition methods such as multiple-choice, true-false or matching.
  • Encourage students to question themselves or each other instead of re-reading notes or texts.  Give a series of open-ended questions as a study guide or have students bring open-ended questions to class, exchange them, and practice answering them.  Online quizzes can work as recall practice too, although they tend to be more recognition focused.  Assign online quizzes strategically to keep the students repeatedly working with the material over the course of the semester.
  • If you do not use tests, you can still require students to recall and reuse previously learned material for projects, case studies or other activities.  Varying the method of retrieval e.g. using an in-class exercise or presentation instead of a test, enhances retention, since it gives students multiple cues for recalling information.  Material that becomes embedded in a narrative or other rich experience is more likely to be retained (but more on that later).
  • When asking students to retrieve previously learned material, try to provide as few hints (“retrieval cues” in cognitive jargon) as possible.  Thus, a free response essay or an application that requires the student to recall material is better at promoting retention than a multiple choice question that requires only recognition of the correct answer.
  • Give students immediate feedback on their answers to avoid them practicing and learning incorrect material.  When you are working on this kind of long term learning, you want to make sure it is correct!

While these ideas and suggestions can help us design courses that maximize students’ ability to remember and transfer information more effectively, we still have to decide which material needs to be emphasized in this way.  We don’t have the time to require frequent testing and recall of all or even most of the material in a typical course, so it is vital for us to distinguish between material that must be automatically available versus material that can and should be looked up as needed.  The current wealth of easily accessible online information has made this a difficult question, but looking at basic conceptual frameworks, core concepts and strategies is a good place for most of us to start. Using a cognitively informed approach asks us to be more intentional about identifying and choosing the most important material in the course and strategically requiring students to recall it multiple times in multiple ways.  It may require rethinking some aspects of your course, but the reward is longer retention and better transfer of your course’s most important concepts.

Most of this post has been summarized and paraphrased from

Next up:  Varying Learning Methods


Teaching Tip: Looking back to move forward

At this point in the semester, I’m certainly not going to suggest that you try some new approach to your teaching.   Instead, I’d like to share an idea that could help you develop your own teaching tips.

On my faculty developers’ listserv, we have been discussing the practice of writing an end of semester “case study” of one or more classes.   At one institution, every instructor is asked to critically examine each of their courses and reflect in writing on what went well, what did not go so well, potential ways to improve the course for the next offering, etc. This exercise was not part of the annual summative evaluation (although it might come in very handy), but was meant to provide a useful structure for analyzing and reviewing teaching progress.

Now, I think most of us do some kind of basic looking back at the end of the semester, but I don’t know if anyone at Marymount is doing anything quite this comprehensive (if you are, let me know!).  When I read about it, I first thought that it would take a non-trivial amount of time, particularly if taken seriously.  However, I think that the process would provide benefits that might just make that time worthwhile.  These are the benefits I see (so far anyway):

  • If you only teach a course once a year (or even less), it’s hard to remember what you intended to change unless you keep some kind of records.  While I tend to scrawl a few notes on the old syllabus and assignment sheets and throw them into the course folder, after a year these often seem incomplete and sometimes incomprehensible.  How the future me would appreciate a thoughtful analysis in complete sentences! And since the future me is the only person who gets this, I don’t have to worry about editing it for public viewing.
  • I’m pretty convinced that I would actually process more deeply and learn more from writing up my reflections than even just thinking deeply.  If there is one thing I believe in more every semester, it’s the power of writing to actually help thinking happen, not just record the thinking that occurred.  Writing is learning, and I want to learn things that will help me teach more effectively.
  • I think using this process could help me remember points I want to make about my teaching performance during the annual assessment process, for example by identifying teaching strengths and weaknesses and show how I am addressing them.  So, this process could save time while writing that document, since essentially I will have done some of the work for it in advance.
  • Finally, this process will help me identify where I want to improve as an instructor, what kind of reading I should be doing or what kind of sessions to attend at teaching conferences and what questions I want to ask my colleagues about how they handle specific teaching issues.

A couple of listserv responders suggested possible questions and formats for a course review or case study.  One is fairly structured toward the course itself and asks questions like:

  • What do I think of the course’s learning objectives?  How might they need to be changed and how hard would that be?  Do they feed into other courses or program objectives?
  • How well did students meet each objective?  What evidence am I using and is there better evidence that I could collect?  How well can I even judge how well students met each objective?  Was there an objective I really didn’t measure that well, or at all?
  • Did my assignments help students to meet my course objectives?  Do some of my assignments not really relate to any of my course objectives and goals?
  • Was the time I and my students spent on assignments and activities (e.g. completing assignments, giving feedback for and grading assignments, planning class activities) worth the academic payoff?

Another, more global approach was suggested by independent consultant Alice Cassidy and focuses on the classic paper, Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, Chickering & Gamson (1987).  Don’t be put off by the title if you teach graduate students.  The concepts are universal.

Good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
  3. Encourages active learning,
  4. Gives prompt feedback,
  5. Emphasizes time on task,
  6. Communicates high expectations, and
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Cassidy asks instructors to reflect on how they are implementing each of the 7 principles as well as thinking about the following three questions:

* What do you do in class time, in meetings with students and through design of assignments?  How do you take part in professional development activities to explore more about these?

* In what ways do you document your work through a teaching portfolio/dossier or other material?

* When and how do you explain these to your students?

I’m definitely going to try this approach after my final grades are in.  If you already do something like this, please share your process with us, or other thoughts you have about ways we can learn from our teaching experiences.


Teaching Tip: Why aren’t you teaching us?

If you are using active learning methods in your classes, you may have gotten negative comments from your students along the lines of  “s/he should do her job and teach instead of just making us (fill in whatever active learning methods you are using here).”   Helping students understand WHY you are asking them to engage in activities that they may not think of as “teaching” during class time can improve their attitudes and willingness to engage in class activities.  Thinking about the brain processes behind active learning can help you plan more effective activities too.  Here’s an explanation you can share with students and use to think about how you incorporate activity into your classes.

As it turns out, both listening/reading and doing are important for you to learn something new. Your brain, like all human brains, learns in four processes if it is to learn deeply so that you will remember and use what you have learned throughout your life.  Here is a very simple overview of how the brain works (Zull, 2002).

Process 1:  In classes you may get important information (for example, concepts about history, biology, or sociology) when you are listening and seeing.  Often listening comes to you through lecture and seeing comes through the written word on the board or screen.  Your outside reading assignments also are part of Process 1.  This kind of content input is important, but it is just the beginning of the learning process.

Process 2:  Next in your brain’s cycle of learning, you need to think (also called reflecting) about the information.  One way to do this is to think about your own experiences that are connected to the lecture or reading so that you can make sense of it personally.  In class you may be asked to free write or discuss the information you have received with your peers.   This process helps move information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory because it is repetitious, more active, and more personal (Zull, p. 21).

Process 3:  Next, your brain needs to make plans to use the information in some purposeful way.  This is not unlike what you do in your everyday life when you make plans for a party, road trip, or another event.  Now you may be asked to figure out how to apply information to a problem or question, analyze a case using the new information, or plan an inquiry project or an essay.

Process 4:  Last, your brain needs to actually take action, which is to do it, to implement the plan to see how it works.  This is the heart of inquiry learning.  If you are successful, GREAT!  But don’t be surprised if you fall short the first time.  Learning takes practice, and rarely do any of us achieve one-shot success on our initial actions. That’s why practicing problem solving techniques, writing drafts, trying different approaches and taking risks is so important to good learning.

Here are three key points about learning activities that you might think about the next few times you are in class:

Key point #1:  When you are doing a learning activity in class (thinking, discussing, writing, drawing, or performing), you are using more of your whole brain and, therefore, learning more deeply.

Key point #2Deep learning is remembered better than the shallow learning that is typically gained through only listening to a lecture and recording lecture notes.

Key point #3:  Lecture-only learning means that you may be using only one-fourth of your brain’s power.

Reference (available at the CTE):

Zull, J. E. (2002).  The art of changing the brain:  Enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Thanks to Dr. Cynthia Desrochers of the Institute for Teaching and Learning at California State University for most of this tip.

Teaching Tip: Studying that works

Those beginning of the semester flutters have subsided for most of us; add-drop is over, rosters are correct (for now anyway), expectations clarified and routines established. This part of the semester always seems to me like the calm before the storm. Students also settle into their routines, but are they good ones for learning? For example, most students will tell you that they are studying, but how does their definition of “study” compare to yours? You won’t be surprised to find out that for many students “study” equals skim over the text, notes or handouts occasionally. Some go so far as to apply highlighters to the page quite liberally. And that’s about it. So, this might be an opportunity to help them get a better understanding of good study routines before the crunch hits.

Just like active learning helps students learn more effectively in class, active studying helps them learn more effectively on their own. Here are some suggestions you can share with your students. For less experienced students, you might want to help them create a sample study schedule using the specific requirements of your course. Or you could ask students to share their study habits and tips with each other and generate a short class discussion on effective studying.

Here are the techniques most supported by research:

  • Study in different places and at different times. We used to think that the most effective way to study was at a desk in a quiet area with few distractions. Generations of dusty desks filled with unopened office supplies support what research now tells us – studying the same material in different environments is better than studying in the same room. Why? Apparently, studying under varied environmental conditions encourages the brain to make multiple associations between the content and external cues, which strengthens the memory. So go ahead and study at Starbucks, but study somewhere else too.
  • Don’t study just one thing at a time. For example, students who switch between quizzing themselves on vocabulary words, outlining or summarizing material in their own words and then checking these against the text or notes and/or solving different types of problems all during the same study session learn more effectively. This type of studying promotes not just deeper learning but also cognitive flexibility. Students must figure out how to choose and switch between different strategies, a skill that will help them on the actual test (not to mention in “real life” situations).
  • Use spaced practice not massed practice. It’s true, it’s true, it’s true! Students who study for less time per session over a longer time period remember more than those who cram. For writing assignments, writing every day is more effective than writing all at once.  This is a hard one to get students to adopt, since it seems less efficient to them than massed practice for hours the night before the test or assignment due date. Maybe you can get a few of them to try it once and see what they think. You can point out that spaced practice also tends to lead to less anxiety, and that students will be more prepared for finals since they will remember material longer. Spaced practice also gives students time to discover what they still don’t understand and get some clarification from you, which is difficult to do at 3 a.m. the night before the exam.
  • Test before the test. Developing and answering questions that might be on the exam, writing paraphrases of concepts in their own words and checking these against the reading or to another student’s interpretation to ensure that the paraphrase captures the intended meaning correctly. Simply reading and re-reading is probably the least efficient method they could use. So just from a time management perspective, using active methods wins out.
  • Form an effective study group – research suggests that good study groups are highly effective (and can be fun). Group members can adopt all of the suggestions above: quiz each other, trade class notes, practice explaining concepts in their own words to each other and/or talk through problems. Groups don’t have to be large – even a partnership is better than studying alone. Good study groups recognize the need to set expectations about focus and concentration e.g. we’ll study for one hour and then socialize. Otherwise all that’s learned is the latest gossip.

Here’s to productive studying!

Material for this tip was drawn from two sources:

Carey, B. (2010). Forget what you know about good study habits. New York    Times, September 6. Retrieved online from

Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471-479.

Teaching Tip: Research on learning, or why we have two hands

Making sense of learning research is not for the faint of heart.  This week as I was reviewing the article “25 learning principles to guide pedagogy and the design of learning environments” to find some helpful hints, I realized that some of the principles on that list seemed to be contradicting others on the same list.  Hmmm….so here’s how I tried to make sense of them. Warning: includes occasional cognitive psychology/education jargon.

On the one hand……

Include cognitive challenges and promote cognitive flexibility

Cognitive disequilibrium happens when students encounter obstacles like information that contradicts their current beliefs or competing explanations that lead them to uncertainty and impasse.  This unbalanced state can lead to deeper learning by requiring students to study, critically reason, explore and attempt to resolve conflicts or problems. Presenting students with multiple divergent viewpoints also promotes cognitive flexibility, which is vital to being able to think creatively and deeply about a topic.

But on the other hand:   Know your audience and what they need

Levels of cognitive challenge too far beyond the students’ current stage can induce frustration, confusion, and anger; learning does not occur under those conditions.  We know instinctively that you can’t teach freshmen the same way you teach senior majors or graduate students, but we don’t always pay enough attention to those differences.  You can use a pre-test or knowledge survey to find out where your students are as the semester begins, and then use the Goldilocks principle (more formally known as Zygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development) to find the “just right” balance between challenge and support (aka scaffolding) for your class.  Of course, the ZPD really applies to individual students, and the inevitable differences that exist among students in any classroom mean that even if your class is optimal for most students, some of them will need extra support and some will need more challenge. To me this is one of the greatest challenges we face as instructors, so more on that later.

On the one hand……

Present information using multiple modalities

Information is more readily encoded and remembered when it is presented through multiple modes. Combining lecture/discussion with media clips, audio (e.g. podcasts) and/or pictures is more effective than using only one method.  Providing the same information using multiple modes is one of the foundations of universal course design, which aims to create equitable classrooms for all students.   Universal Course Design

But on the other hand:  Avoid distraction

Plan the order and amount of new information that is to be presented in digestible chunks so you don’t overwhelm students with too much too fast.  When using multiple channels, keep them “congruent” e.g. present similar information over different channels.  Otherwise, students will attempt to process both channels simultaneously, which leads to cognitive overload for many of them.  Avoid distracting elements such as animations, pictures or other add-ons that do not directly connect to the material to be learned; your intent may be to attract attention but the result may be lack of learning.

On the one hand….

Use active methods and deep questioning

There is a robust body of research that indicates that students should be doing things with the information and processes we want them to learn.  What kind of things?

  • Outlining, organizing, synthesizing, re-stating in their own words and/or applying information to new examples rather than just re-reading material or listening.  For example, have students create their own study guides or chapter outlines and give them feedback.
  • Combining information gleaned from texts, lectures, discussions or other resources into a single product.  Try using a different approach or order of topics in class than your text uses, then require students to integrate the two.  Have them combine what they saw in a video with what the text says about the topic in writing. These activities require students to take more time and effort, and lead to better learning.
  • Ask good questions to promote increased comprehension and deeper learning.  Good questions also get students into the mindset of thinking deeply about material as the course progresses, in anticipation of the questions they will be asked.  What are good questions?  The traditional “who, what, where, when” questions do not lead to as much learning as “why, how, what if or what if not” questions.  Students will require more time and thought to answer these questions, especially at the beginning.  They benefit from the opportunity to think or write about questions first, discuss them in small groups and then engage in a whole class exploration.

But on the other hand: Sometimes direct instruction is necessary

Especially for novice learners (including yourself when you are learning something new), unsupported inquiry or totally independent active learning is not the most effective way to go.  Novices need supports which may take the form of worked examples, explanations, and detailed formats and directions (there’s that scaffolding again).  New learners often need direct instruction in metacognitive skills such as how to study, how to tackle difficult reading materials and how to regulate their learning.  When you are assessing student knowledge, it may also be helpful to assess their understanding of how to learn as well.  As students progress through their programs, direct instruction should be less prominent and less support should be necessary, but once again, individual differences play a big role here. .

I’ve really just touched the surface of these principles that are at the core of good learning and teaching.  It would be so helpful to hear about some of the things you are doing in your classrooms that illustrate how you are trying to maintain the balance between challenge, activity and complexity on the one hand, and direct instruction, simplicity and support on the other.  Where is it working for you, and where would you like some new ideas to try?

Principles drawn from:  25 Learning Principles to Guide Pedagogy and the Design of Learning Environments

A Tip to Pass Along to Your Students

Their learning style and your teaching style might not make much difference, but research points to one variable that really does improve student learning: variety.

As Benedict Carey reports in the New York Times,  students who study the same material in different locations, or who mix up the type of material they study in a single session, better retain the information.  The article is appropriately titled “Forget What You Know about Good Study Habits.”

Teaching Tip: Testing..testing..testing

I’ve never been a huge fan of tests, preferring more “real world” tasks like projects and papers.  My attitude probably stems from too many memories of cramming for tests and then forgetting most of what I “learned”.  But research in learning and cognition suggests that tests can be very effective learning tools (not just assessment methods) if they are used well, so I’m working on readjusting my beliefs.

Regardless of how we feel about them, tests are a fact of academic life for most of us.  We all know that students pay more attention to material they think will be on the test (and as we all know, they quickly learn not to attend to material they think will not be on the test).  A truism in education at all levels is that assessment drives instruction; what you test is what students are most likely to learn.  So, our tests need to be as good as we can possibly make them.    I was pleased to come across a great summary of research-based learning principles that had many suggestions about what makes good tests.  (

Test Often
I still remember a comment Linda Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking made in a seminar I attended many years ago.  It went something like this:  We all know that students don’t study until the night before the test.  Instead of bemoaning this, use your knowledge.  Give them a test every class.  That way they’ll study at least twice a week.   While I’ve never gone quite this far, frequent testing has several benefits:

  • It keeps students more engaged with the content of the class and it slows down forgetting.
  • Frequent testing is particularly effective if you give students immediate feedback about their results and if you use the class results to guide your course planning.
  • How frequent is frequent?  Anywhere from every class to every two – three weeks.
  • I have not seen evidence that “pop” quizzes are any better or worse than announced ones.  I have not been a fan of pop quizzes since I was a student and don’t give them, but there is no pedagogical reason not to if that is your preference.

Start early

  • Spacing tests over the entire semester (rather than concentrating on mid-term and beyond) produces better retention than fewer tests, or tests that are closer together in time. Testing right after you present material usually results in higher scores, but long-term memory has not yet been engaged so retention is poorer.  We often think our students understand better than they do based on those first tests, only to be disappointed on the final or in the next course when the learning has disappeared.

Use constructed response items as much as possible

  • If you use multiple choice items, combine them with constructed response items (short answer or essay) as often as possible.  When students have to generate their own responses instead of recognizing the correct response from a list, decide true/false, etc. their learning is enhanced.  You can also include free response tasks as part of your teaching on a regular basis.

Avoid negative suggestion effects

  • A downside of testing is that students may remember the wrong answer they wrote or selected instead of the correct response.  To combat this, students need feedback as soon as possible on their performance so they can correct their memories.  You could do this by asking students to rewrite answers correctly or by reviewing items in class or individually.  One effective review strategy I have used with multiple choice tests is to have students immediately re-take the test in small groups with the group coming to consensus about the correct answer.  Then the class reviews any items that the groups got wrong (usually this comes down to just a few items).   This makes the test into a powerful learning experience, although it does take up more class time.  If you are requiring students to do more content acquisition on their own, outside of class, you will have time for this type of approach.  

Give a cumulative final (or at least threaten to)

  • When students expect a final exam that covers material from the entire course, as well as perhaps some more recent material, they will work to keep that material in their memory since they expect they will need it later.

Spreading testing out over the semester may have some benefits for you as well.  You can spread your grading out a bit more, you may be able to give more constructed response items if they are spaced through the semester, and you may see some happy improvements in student performance overall.

Oh and by the way, you don’t have to call them “tests”, and you don’t have to grade every one.  You can use clickers to pose questions and process them during class, or you can schedule “in-class directed writing” assignments every couple of weeks.   The important points are 1) frequent assessment of student progress; 2) make the students construct their responses as much as you can; 3) correct errors very promptly and 4) don’t let them learn something just for one exam and then be able to forget it.

Share your test giving strategies or concerns with us!