A Few Quick Tips for the Overwhelmed Educator

A Few Quick Tips for the Overwhelmed Educator

By: Cindy Wooldridge

Hi, I’m Dr. Cindy Wooldridge – the newest addition to the Learning Scientists team. As this is my first blog post, let me tell you who I am. I am a trained cognitive psychologist who has worked directly with some of the most influential people in the area of applying cognitive psychology to education. I have been trained to control every possible unimportant variable in an experiment to hone in on how one specific factor affects learning, and how tiny tweaks can change the outcome of a study. I identify as a researcher and I tell every educator I know about the considerable evidence that testing, spacing, and elaboration aid in retention of material.

But I am also an instructor. I have been teaching for 7 years now and have learned a tremendous amount in that time. I have learned that the averages we use in laboratory research often leave out the high- and low-achieving students, and that those students matter too…both to society and to upper-administration. I have learned that designing a course from scratch is really, really hard and that doing an overhaul on that course is almost equally hard. I’ve learned that there are not enough hours in the day for me to be an excellent researcher, instructor, advisor, colleague, committee member, partner, caregiver, Tweeter (??), etc. etc. etc., and that sacrifices have to be made.

I want to take a step back now. Scientists and instructors desperately need to take a moment, pause, and listen to each other. We started this blog by highlighting this problem, but let’s take a look at how far we’ve come. Here’s a mini-synthesis of the top 10 detailed recommendations that have been made to instructors on this blog alone, in just the past 2 months (and don't worry - my QUICK tips are coming up soon!):

1) Stop trying to cater to specific students based on their perceived learning style.

2) Don’t rely on your intuition when making decisions about your teaching practice.

3) Encourage students to test themselves when studying.

4) Provide students with practice questions because writing their own questions takes extra time without extra benefits.

5) Test students frequently in a low-stakes situation

6) Use any type of quizzing you can, including multiple-choice, but make sure that you give feedback.

7) But make sure those multiple-choice questions are really good!

8) Interleave material by reviewing, or better yet by testing students on previous material.

9) Assign high-quality homework assignments.

10) And make sure you’re reading highly objective sources about this stuff, because people will misinterpret the research!

These recommendations are all great. But are you overwhelmed yet? I know I am – and this is my area of expertise! I hear you, Overwhelmed Educator. So, here are a few quick strategies, which I feel confident in recommending to you based on a synthesis of the research. I am taking into account limitations of the research, and only including those recommendations that should actually help, and are easy and efficient to implement.


1) Ask questions out loud in class and have students write down an answer before discussing it.

2) Ask questions about material that you covered yesterday, last week, or last month.

3) Talk to students about when and how they can use the material you are covering.

4) Try to connect the material you are teaching to other things students know.

All of these recommendations take little to no prep. The idea is simply to try to include them in what you already do. Yes, there are more sophisticated ways to incorporate research-based practices into your classroom; but if you don’t have time for big changes all at once, try these smaller changes.

If you want to read more about the benefits of testing, check out this week’s digest.