Cognitive Psychology and Education: Your Questions Answered (Volume 2)

Cognitive Psychology and Education: Your Questions Answered (Volume 2)

By Yana Weinstein

A few months ago, we published a piece in which we answered select reader questions. Here, we continue the series with 5 further questions.

Q1: Does retrieval practice also help students who have poor memories, or is it more helpful for students who are already good at tests? What about students with severe memory problems, such as brain damage?

Questions submitted on Twitter by Jules @JulesDaulby.

A1: Actually, there is some evidence that if anything, retrieval practice helps students who have trouble with memory (e.g., poor working memory) even more than it helps students without these issues; Megan summarized a study (1) demonstrating this effect a few weeks ago. In addition, there is even some promising research showing positive effects of retrieval practice in people diagnosed with ADHD (2), traumatic brain injury (3), (4), and multiple sclerosis (5)!

Q2: Help! I’m a student, but I have no idea how to study. Can someone please teach me how to study?

Question adapted from hundreds of students on Twitter every day.

A2: Relax. Breath. We are here to help! Start by watching this video – it’s about 8 minutes long, and it tells you all about 6 really good ways to study. Next, decide what you are going to study. Are you working from a text? Then you can use this method for studying a textbook. Do you want to use flashcards in the most effective manner? Use this tutorial. Would you like to try dual coding (combining words and visuals), now that you know how helpful it can be? Here’s a step-by-step post on how to do that. If you have trouble concentrating, you can use the Pomodoro technique. Good luck!

Q3: Why does the Learning Styles myth persist, and what can we do about it?

Question adapted from multiple teachers on Twitter.

A3: Learning Styles are ubiquitous. Every day I see hundreds of Tweets from teachers rejoicing in the latest Learning Styles activity that they have implemented in the classroom.

So, Learning Styles are impossible to get away from. Indeed, surveys conducted across the world typically find that over 90% of teachers believe in adapting teaching to each student’s preferred learning style (6), (7). This statistic in and of itself might not be surprising, but the more surprising result is that greater interest in the neuroscience of education tends to be related to stronger – rather than weaker – beliefs in Learning Styles (6)! Why is this the case? A review of the literature (8) suggests that one factor may be the proliferation of research that uses Learning Styles questionnaires and then concludes that Learning Styles are important and useful (without actually demonstrating this in a scientifically sound manner). Any well-meaning teacher who searches the literature is thus going to find many positive references to Learning Styles.

The explanation for why we can’t conclude that Learning Styles are useful based on any of the published data is actually quite nuanced (see these resources for more details). In order to understand why Learning Styles aren’t useful, teachers would need to invest quite a lot of time into understanding the research methods involved in the studies that claim to demonstrate their usefulness. So, what we need is more open-access, clear explanations of the research – like this one just published by Paul Kirschner, @ P_A_Kirschner (9).  

Q4: Does caffeine hurt or help learning?

Question submitted on Twitter by Tim van der Zee @Research_Tim, who is currently a Visiting Scholar in my research lab. He writes a blog on scientific methodology, The Skeptical Scientist.

Photo taken by Yana

Photo taken by Yana

A4: There are lots of myths out there about nutrition and the brain, but the positive effects of caffeine you may have heard about aren’t one of them. A recent meta-analysis (10) suggests that coffee – in moderation, and particularly when you are fatigued – can increase the speed with which you react and your ability to persevere on a boring, repetitive task. In general, moderate levels of caffeine appear to help with attention. However, the research on caffeine’s effects on memory is more mixed; there doesn’t seem to be a consistent direct benefit of caffeine for memory. But to the extent that caffeine helps you stay on task while studying, that could be beneficial.

Q5: What tips do you have for parents to assist with learning strategies?

Question submitted on Twitter by Blake Pritchard @effortfuleduktr, who has previously contributed two Guest Posts to our blog.

A5: We’ve published two posts that are specifically aimed at helping parents help their children to use effective strategies. One is on spacing – how can you encourage your child to space out their learning? And the other is on homework (a controversial topic in many homes). If these posts for parents are useful, we would be delighted to write more in the future. Please do let us know!

Please submit additional questions through the contact form on our front page!


(1) Agarwal, P. K., Finley, J. R., Rose, N. S., & Roediger, H. L. (in press). Benefits from retrieval practice are greater for students with lower working memory capacity. Memory.

(2) Knouse, L. E., Rawson, K. A., Vaughn, K. E., & Dunlosky, J. (2016). Does Testing Improve Learning for College Students With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder?. Clinical Psychological Science, 4, 136-143.

(3) Sumowski, J. F., Coyne, J., Cohen, A., & DeLuca, J. (2014). Retrieval practice improves memory in survivors of severe traumatic brain injury. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 95, 397-400.

(4) Pastötter, B., Weber, J., & Bäuml, K. H. T. (2013). Using testing to improve learning after severe traumatic brain injury. Neuropsychology, 27, 280-285.

(5) Sumowski, J. F., Leavitt, V. M., Cohen, A., Paxton, J., Chiaravalloti, N. D., & DeLuca, J. (2013). Retrieval practice is a robust memory aid for memory-impaired patients with MS. Multiple Sclerosis Journal, 19, 1943-1946.

(6) Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3.

(7) Rato, J. R., Abreu, A. M., & Castro-Caldas, A. (2013). Neuromyths in education: what is fact and what is fiction for Portuguese teachers? Educational Research, 55, 441-453.

(8) Newton, P. M. (2015). The Learning Styles myth is thriving in higher education. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

(9) Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education, 106, 166-171.

(10) McLellan, T. M., Caldwell, J. A., & Lieberman, H. R. (2016). A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 71, 294-312.