Cognitive Psychology and Education: Your Questions Answered (Volume 3)

Cognitive Psychology and Education: Your Questions Answered (Volume 3)

By Yana Weinstein

A few months ago, we published a piece in which we answered 5 reader questions, and then a follow-up with 5 more questions answered. Here, we continue the series with 5 further questions.

Q1: Is there any real magic to the “rule of 3”? That is, when we give students a set of instructions or introduce new ideas in a lecture, should we always try to stick to 3 steps?

Questions submitted on Twitter by Nancy Weinstein from Mindprint Learning @MindPrintLearn

A1: To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t even heard of this rule. You might like to try Googling “rule of 3”, as I did – apparently, it has been applied to anything from marketing to reporting one’s sexual history (trigger warning: misogyny). When applied to learning, the “magical rule of 3” has been interpreted in terms of the number of times something needs to be presented to be learned, in addition to the original formulation of this reader’s question, which refers to giving students only 3 steps in an set of instructions. So, in the spirit of the “magical rule of 3”, I have 3 thoughts on this question:

  1. There are no truly “magical rules” in cognitive psychology. For an excellent discussion of this, see Roediger’s piece on the lack of universal laws in memory (1).
  2. “Magical rules” tend to originate from grains of reality. In this case, the grain of reality might be the finding that working memory capacity is limited. For example, visual working memory is limited to 3-4 simple objects (2), although this capacity varies between individuals (3). Funnily enough, this 3-4 item limit is actually an update to the original estimate of 7 plus or minus 2 items, which, confusingly, was itself coined as “magical” by Miller when he described it in the 1950s (4).
  3. Long-term memory, on the other hand, does not have this type of capacity limit (5). So, unless you want students to hold information (such as task instructions) in mind temporarily while working on something, the “rule of 3” need not apply.

Q2: How can I integrate the 6 study strategies into a study routine or regimen?

Question submitted by a student through the “Contact Us” form on

A2: Great timing – I just answered this question for my First Year Seminar students! Here is how I see the 6 study strategies as part of a study plan:

Spaced practice and interleaving help you figure out when you should study. Retrieval practice is the most important study strategy, and you should engage in this activity every time you study; it answers the overall question of how you should study. And finally: elaboration, concrete examples, and dual coding provide additional techniques that can be used in conjunction with retrieval practice. Good luck!

Q3: How can we help students take more effective notes in class?

Questions 3 & 4 were submitted by Cindy Wooldridge’s colleague at Washburn University.

A3: My answer to this question comes not from cognitive psychology, but from an adjacent field: Applied Behavior Analysis. Research from this field recommends the use of “guided notes” to improve students’ note-taking and learning from lectures (6). The guided notes technique involves providing students with a framework with cues and blank spaces so that they are prompted to take notes about specific concepts covered in the class. This method of note-taking has been shown to produce greater learning than other learning conditions such as presenting students with key points on Powerpoint slides, and/or having them take their own unstructured notes (7).

Q4: In my class, I have students read before class, and then I give a lecture. Where should I place quiz questions for optimal learning – before or after the lecture?

A4: It depends on your goals, and the overlap in content between the reading and the lecture. If there is total overlap between the two, then students will quickly figure this out and stop doing the reading, unless you quiz them on it before the lecture. If there is not total overlap, then a better solution would be to pull out some information that is only in the reading, and quiz them on that in addition to what’s covered in the lecture. In that case, you can vary up the position of the quiz questions to maintain test expectancy throughout each class. In a previous post, I discussed my research on the placement of quiz questions throughout or at the end of a lecture (8); it didn’t much matter for long-term learning, as shown in the figure below.

Figure adapted from Weinstein, Nunes, & Karpicke (2016, Experiment 3).

Figure adapted from Weinstein, Nunes, & Karpicke (2016, Experiment 3).

Having some unexpected quizzes at the beginning of some lectures, and some at the end might be a good way to ensure that students arrive on time and stay for the whole class. If you can, consider including some quiz questions from previous lectures/readings in each class, to provide students with built-in opportunities for spaced practice!

Q5: Is the Flipped Classroom effective or a fraud?

Question submitted on Twitter by Henno Kotzé @HennoK

A5: The idea of the “flipped classroom” is so broad that it is hard to empirically test; John Hattie makes this point in a recent review (9). At its core, the idea is simply that students are supposed to “do something” (these days, often involving technology; e.g., watch a video) before coming to class. Then, the knowledge they gained from this independent studying will be consolidated in some way during the class – typically through engagement in activities rather than passive listening.

Image from  Oliver Tacke  on Flickr

Image from Oliver Tacke on Flickr

The confusing thing about the idea of the “flipped classroom” is that it is actually nothing new. Even in the traditional lecture, students are often expected to have read prior to coming to class. Whether most students do this is, of course, another story; I recommend quizzing students on the reading to encourage students to actually do it (see the answer to Q4 above). Unlike the traditional lecture, the “flipped classroom” model tends to involve some kind of student activity during class time. As a result, the “flipped classroom” model may increase the likelihood that students will actually engage in the out-of-class activity, because often the in-class activity will be contingent on the out-of-class activity, perhaps more so than in a traditional lecture.

Another way that the flipped classroom might differ from traditional instruction is that the role of the teacher is seen more as a guide to student learning, than as an instructor who transmits knowledge. Over the decades, cognitive psychology has shown this teaching method to be unhelpful to learning, particularly with students who are not yet experts in the topic at hand (see Megan’s recent post on this issue). All in all, however, it’s not possible to answer the question “is the flipped classroom effective”, because there are too many degrees of freedom in the definition of a “flipped classroom”!

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


(1) Roediger, H. L. (2008). Relativity of remembering: Why the laws of memory vanished. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 225-254. 

(2) Awh, E., Barton, B., & Vogel, E. K. (2007). Visual working memory represents a fixed number of items regardless of complexity. Psychological Science, 18, 622-628.

(3) Vogel, E. K., & Machizawa, M. G. (2004). Neural activity predicts individual differences in visual working memory capacity. Nature, 428, 748-751.

(4) Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

(5) Cowan, N. (2008). What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in Brain Research, 169, 323-338.

(6) Barbetta, P.M. & Skaruppa, C.L. (1995). Looking for ways to improve your behavior analysis lecture? Try guided notes. The Behavior Analyst, 18, 155-160.

(7) Konrad, M., Joseph, L.M., & Eveleigh, E. (2009). A meta-analytic review of guided notes. Education and Treatment of Children, 32, 421-444.

(8) Weinstein, Y., Nunes, L. D., & Karpicke, J. D. (2016). On the placement of practice questions during study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 22, 72-84. 

(9) Hattie, J. (2015). The applicability of Visible Learning to higher education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1, 79-91.