Cognitive Psychology and Education: Your Questions Answered
By Yana Weinstein
A few weeks ago, we published a piece asking our readers to submit questions regarding the application of cognitive psychology to education. We received a number of excellent questions; some we were able to answer briefly, whereas others benefit from a longer explanation. Here we have selected a few interesting questions to answer more in-depth, and provide links to further reading on each topic.
Q1: Why are the six learning strategies the core strategies? Is it because they’re the most effective ones?
Question submitted by @JorisPoffers
A1: Yes! About 10 years ago, a report was published summarizing the research from cognitive psychology applied to education (1). These strategies in particular were found to have solid evidence and were suggested for implementation. Unfortunately, a recent textbook report suggests that they have not really made their way into teacher-training textbooks (2). However, it’s important to note that not all 6 strategies have equal amounts of evidence behind them. In particular, spaced practice and retrieval practice are most strongly supported by decades of research. On our downloads page, we’ve organized the strategies roughly in order from strongest (spaced practice) to least strong evidence (dual coding). This doesn’t mean that the evidence for dual coding is weak; but there are some important caveats to bear in mind when implementing this technique, as discussed in a recent blog post by Megan Smith.
Q2: if I ask ten questions about a topic, does that reinforce knowledge of the whole topic, or just the things I asked about?
Question submitted by @adamboxer1
A2: Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer to this question. It is a somewhat complex question that has to do with the notion of “transfer” of learned information to a new question or situation. While transfer is possible in some situations, it is quite hard to achieve. In fact, a study by Cindy Wooldridge and co-authors (3) tested a similar scenario to the one suggested in this question: they tested students on new information that they had not practiced, and found no improvement on that information relative to the ineffective study technique of highlighting (see this post for a more thorough description of the study). For the best chance of reinforcing knowledge of the whole topic, it does appear that retrieval practice on as much of the information as possible is preferable.
Q3: Is there any evidence about typed notes being less effective as a learning process than handwritten notes?
Question submitted by @hammersmithblue
A3: Yes, actually, such evidence does exist – and it is somewhat counter-intuitive. We are generally faster at typing than at writing by hand. This means that we can type almost as fast as someone is speaking, typing out exactly what they are saying. This is actually less effective for learning than writing down a selection of key points (which tends to happen if you hand-write your notes). We had a student write a guest blog about the findings here. However, there is a way to make typed note-taking just as effective as handwriting. Those who have significant trouble with handwriting (a condition called dysgraphia) may prefer to use the alternative method proposed by another student in this post. This typed note-taking method includes effective study strategies of spacing and retrieval practice to consolidate memory of the material encountered in a lecture. These strategies can serve to compensate for the benefits you give up when moving from hand-writing to electronic note-taking.
Q4: If testing helps learning correct information, then doesn’t it also reinforce misconceptions when incorrect answers are retrieved?
Question submitted by @jwalkup
A4: Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the answer is usually no: testing generally does not reinforce misconceptions – as long as there is feedback after the incorrect answer. Incorrectly retrieving an answer and then receiving feedback is more beneficial than simply reading the correct answer without making a retrieval attempt. In one set of studies with vocabulary learning, students made guesses on items they had no idea about – their guesses had no basis whatsoever in any knowledge (4). After these guesses, they then saw the correct response as feedback. At test, students were much more likely to identify the correct definitions of the studied words if they had previously made an incorrect guess and then seen the correct response, compared to just seeing the correct response without making a guess.
Q5: Is there any evidence that regular practice of meditation and mindfulness have a positive influence on educational outcomes?
Question submitted by Ed Mills through our website.
A5: While it may seem like mindfulness is the latest fad, there is actually a growing set of evidence that this practice can have a positive effective on educational outcomes, particularly in K-12 settings (5). Some have argued that mindfulness practice can improve executive functioning and reduce anxiety, thereby improving academic achievement (6). Another possible explanation is that mindfulness reduces mind-wandering – that is, thoughts unrelated to what the student is trying to learn (7). Mind-wandering takes the student’s attention away from classroom material, which hurts understanding and memory (see this blog post for a summary of the research on mind-wandering during a lecture). If mindfulness practice decreases the frequency and intensity of mind-wandering episodes while students are trying to pay attention, then this could be beneficial to learning.
(1) Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58.
(2) Pomerance, L., Greenberg, J., & Walsh, K. (2016, January). Learning about learning: What every teacher needs to know. Retrieved from http://www.nctq.org/dmsView/Learning_About_Learning_Report
(3) Wooldridge, C., Bugg, J., McDaniel, M., & Liu, Y. (2014). The testing effect with authentic educational materials: A cautionary note. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 214-221.
(4) Potts, R., & Shanks, D. R. (2014). The benefit of generating errors during learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 644-667.
(5) Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M. S., Abbott, D., Thomson, K., Oberlander, T. F., & Diamond, A. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social-emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology, 51, 52-66.
(6) Zelazo, P. D., & Lyons, K. E. (2012). The potential benefits of mindfulness training in early childhood: A developmental social cognitive neuroscience perspective. Child Development Perspectives, 6, 154-160.
(7) Mrazek, M. D., Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Mindfulness and mind-wandering: finding convergence through opposing constructs. Emotion, 12, 442-448.