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A brief introduction to cognitive science

Written By: Dominic Shibli
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Cognitive science is the study of the human mind. It is difficult to study and teach, and because it doesn’t have fixed laws like Newton’s Laws of Motion, is open to interpretation. But there are principles that can be utilised to design more rewarding educational experiences for young people in schools 

(Bermúdez, 2010).

To utilise our understanding of cognitive science to inform our teaching, we have to have an understanding of the following concepts (Caviglioli, 2019):

1. Perception

2. Attention

3. Working Memory (WM)

4. Long Term Memory (LTM)

5. Schema.

This article provides a very brief overview of each of these.

Perception — We interpret stimuli in different ways often based upon our prior experiences. This sometimes means that the message sent is not always the message received, which is why checking understanding is such an important tool of the teacher.

Attention — This has been described as the ‘Holy Grail for teachers’ (Beard, 2017). It is a limited resource that directs and maintains focus on a specific point. With multiple stimuli it is difficult to know where to focus students’ attention. A lecture or lesson with poorly designed PowerPoint can quickly cause cognitive overload and hinder learning.

Working memory — This is described as the site of consciousness where we process information in the moment. This processing is a very cognitive intensive process, hence we can typically hold only small amounts of information in it. To compensate for the limitation in WM, we have evolved to use the long term memory.

Long term memory — This is a theoretically infinite site of storage. This storage requires four stages called:

I) Encoding

II) Consolidation

III) Storage

IV) Retrieval

(see Weinstein, 2019).

The LTM organises information into neuronal patterns. These are called ‘schema’. A novice learner typically has a poorly organised schema and therefore the load on the working memory (WM) is typically high early on in the learning process. But as the learner continues to bring relevant information to mind, the schema starts to organise itself. As a schema develops and a learner is exposed to the same information again, the WM is able to access this information and reduce the load on the WM. An expert is thought to have more highly organised schema than a novice and gains a certain level of fluency. A good teacher will support learners to organise schema in a useful way.

Implications for trainee teachers and teacher educators

Perception — Find out what students know already because new learning builds on this.

Attention — This is a limited resource. Reduce the amount of stimuli that students have to process. For example, reduce information on PowerPoint slides and avoid having too many words, images and speaking at the same time.

WM — This is also a limited resource. It has a limited capacity and information is usually only stored in there briefly. Distraction can empty it and different people have different WM capacities. Gathercole and Alloway (2007) refer to WM failures when poor instruction has overwhelmed WM (you might recognise students that you have taught that struggle to retain instructions).

schema is a metaphor for how knowledge (skills being a subset of knowledge) is organised. When a subject is covered students often forget. This forgetting can be used to our advantage in what Bjork (1996) calls ‘desirable difficulties’. Students partially forgetting and then being asked to bring that information back to into mind at a later interval can strengthen the schema formation.

Cognitive Load Theory (1988), postulated by John Sweller in the late 1980s, aims to improve teacher instructional design by taking into account the characteristics of WM and LTM. By improving instructional design it is possible to optimise the load on the WM so that learning experiences are not hampered by overwhelming the WM. So taking into account the complexity of the content, the experience of the learner, how the presenter delivers the information and the design of the task can reduce the demand on the WM and improve the learning experience.


Further reading

Brown P, Roediger H and McDaniel M (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA, US: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Colvin Clark R (2008) Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement (3rd ed). USA: John Wiley & Sons.

The Learning Scientists (nd) About Us. Available at: http://www.learningscientists.org/ (accessed 26 January 2022).

  • Caviglioli O (2019) Memory and Meaning PowerPoint.
  • Bermúdez JL (2010) Cognitive Science: An Introduction to the Science of the Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Beard A (2017) Natural Born Learners. Our Incredible Capacity to Learn and How We Can Harness it. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Bjork EL and Bjork RA (1996) Memory. Handbook of Perception and Cognition. San Diego: Academic Press.
  • Gathercole S and Alloway T (2007) Understanding Working Memory. A Classroom Guide.
  • Sweller J (1988) Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science 12: 257—285.
  • Weinstein Y, Sumeracki M and Caviglioli O (2019) Understanding How We Learn. Oxford: Routledge.
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