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Utilising cognitive research as an early-career teacher

Written by: Adam Stubbs
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5 min read

As a newly qualified teacher (NQT), I have spent a significant amount of time since my initial teacher training reflecting on my practice and how to maximise my impact within the classroom. This task poses challenges to any teacher, and even more so to an early-career teacher, with the differences between expert and novice teachers having been well-documented (Persky and Robinson, 2017). Whilst still navigating the world of an NQT and integrating best practice within my teaching, it is vital to reduce unnecessary time costs by focusing planning and resources on the methods that are most likely to have the greatest positive impact with the lowest cost. By utilising more efficient teaching methods, I can find the time to focus on the areas that matter most.

Employing evidence from research into cognitive science has allowed me not only to develop as a practitioner but also to do so sustainably, benefiting both my self-efficacy and workload. In particular, the work of Rosenshine (2012) has been instrumental in my practice. As his work triangulates evidence from cognitive science, expert teachers and instructional theory, it increases the confidence of those findings, which are further supported by the canon of work by the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab (2019). Specifically, it has encouraged me to prioritise the use of spaced retrieval practice to embed learning.

Lessons from research

Rosenshine’s work has been pivotal in my development by providing a clear lens through which to investigate cognitive and educational research. His focus on the review of material and atomisation of complex tasks has encouraged me to consider how to utilise teachers’ limited time most effectively. As a result of this, I start each of my lessons with a short review task: typically a series of short, specific questions to support retrieval of previous content. This requires no elaborate preparation, and therefore allows me to focus my time on developing better questions and planning for misconceptions.

Review questions are targeted towards ‘threshold concepts’, which are the most valuable recurring concepts that students must grasp to build upon their understanding (Meyer and Land, 2003). Not only does this allow me to check what they’ve retained and support them to retain it for longer, but it also provides valuable information that informs my teaching. For example, if students are soon to study electrolysis, I pre-empt those lessons with review tasks on related content, such as ionic bonding. This allows for spaced retrieval and provides an opportunity to check for misconceptions and gaps in students’ schemas quickly and effectively. Each question is purposefully precise to allow me to make accurate inferences; a convoluted question prevents me from identifying the reasons for a student’s incorrect answer. Once a topic has recurred multiple times successfully, I will subsequently add a layer of complexity to provide challenge and support reconsolidation.

Rosenshine suggests that the most effective teachers ensure that students experience a high success rate during practice, answering around 80 per cent of questions correctly, and I quickly realised the importance of this in my classroom. By breaking content down into bite-sized concepts and focusing on securing each before moving on, a higher success rate is possible and it allows me to develop a better understanding of where students need support. This has made my teaching much more formative, with each lesson starting by providing valuable information about what students can remember. Taking this forward throughout the entire lesson has had a noticeable effect on the students I teach, particularly those with lower prior attainment. Repeated failure over the years in class and in assessments can lead to poor motivation and a learned helplessness, which has a significant impact on learning (Fincham et al., 1989). However, by atomising and reviewing content using many short, low-stakes questions, students who typically experience failure in learning quickly experience success. When starting each lesson with a short review task, it is important to ensure that the material is suitably challenging to feel a sense of accomplishment, yet achievable enough so that a high success rate becomes the norm, in line with Bjork and Bjork’s work on desirable difficulties (2011). Not only does this focus on applying cognitive and educational research increase the probability of retention, but it has also allowed me to change the narrative to student success every single day.

Spacing out content has been demonstrated to increase retention, but it also develops better habits in me as a teacher and in the students (Carpenter et al., 2012). Soderstrom and Bjork (2015) suggest a distinction between learning and performance, with performance on any task a poor indicator of long-term learning. This on its own has altered my approach to assessment, focusing instead on retention over time, which is easier to measure with low-stakes spaced questions than in any one assessment. By relaying this to the students, it gives me the opportunity to model effective study habits each lesson, with revision becoming an ongoing metacognitive process.

Opportunity costs

Given that teachers have a limited amount of time, there is a need to ensure that its impact is maximised. As an NQT, juggling a whole host of new and complex tasks, this is even more important. Rosenshine’s work focuses on simple tasks, filled with questions guided by an expert teacher. Although not an elaborate model of teaching, it is incredibly effective for retention, learning and time cost. With significant swathes of teachers leaving the profession, citing workload issues (Perryman and Calvert, 2019), we have a duty to ensure that teaching is a sustainable profession. Engaging with research gives me confidence as a teacher in my own self-efficacy and allows me to make more effective and sustainable decisions.

By engaging with cognitive and educational research, I can focus on what works best for my students. My planning is now focused on breaking down complex ideas and encouraging long-term retention, whilst allowing students to experience success each and every day. As a teacher, this allows me to show my passion for my subject and gives the students the success they need to move forward.


Bjork E and Bjork R (2011) Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In: Gernsbacher MA, Pew RW, Hough LM et al. and FABBS Foundation (eds) Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. New York, NY, US: Worth Publishers, pp. 56–64.

Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab (2019) Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Available at: (accessed 20 October 2019).

Carpenter SK, Cepeda NJ, Rohrer D et al. (2012) Using spacing to enhance diverse forms of learning: Review of recent research and implications for instruction. Educational Psychology Review 24: 369–378.

Fincham FD, Hokoda A and Sanders Jr R (1989) Learned helplessness, test anxiety, and academic achievement: A longitudinal analysis. Child Development 60(1): 138–145.

Meyer JHF and Land R (2003) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising. In: Rust C (ed) Improving Student Learning: Theory and Practice Ten Years On. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, pp. 412–414.

Perryman J and Calvert G (2019) What motivates people to teach, and why do they leave? Accountability, performativity and teacher retention. British Journal of Educational Studies, pp. 1–21.

Persky A and Robinson J (2017) Moving from novice to expertise and its implications for instruction. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 81(9): 6065.

Rosenshine B (2012) Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator 36(1): 12–19.

Soderstrom N and Bjork R (2015) Learning versus performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10(2): 176–199.

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