We use cookies for core functionality, multimedia content and collecting usage data to help us improve.

Published in Professional Learning

UKFEChat 2016 Presentation: part 2

Replacing comfortable learning myths with science presents a liminal moment for many in FE. A time for a radical rethink of how students learn most effectively.

In this second half of the presentation, I went through the major findings of cognitive science of the most effective strategies for learning. 

Distributed practice

Often called Spaced Practice, this strategy entails the unintuitive slicing up of prolonged study into smaller, and spaced apart, sessions. Custom tells us that a long, single study session would produce more coherent and memorable learning. Alas, not.

By breaking up the study into these shorter chunks, learners have to exert greater effort in remembering where they were in the last session and linking the present content to that. Such effort, it turns out, is what makes the difference in solidifying the content into long-term memory.

The answer, as illustrated below, is to allot content to a scheduled series of study sessions over time.


Perhaps the most confusing of all these new discoveries, interleaving entails swapping the content being studied around into a series of changes. Like the above spaced practice, this too, entails a certain amount of cognitive discomfort. After all, having to discontinue a topic you seem just about to be becoming familiar and comfortable with, to a different topic seems absurdly inconsistent with common sense.

It turns out that common sense is perhaps more attuned to comfort than effectiveness.Once again, the key to understanding why this strategy works is the degree of cognitive effort required to reorient yourself to the new content and the imperceptible creation of links between what was studied and the new content before you. The slide below illustrates the contrast in comfort and effectiveness of these two approaches. When introducing this strategy to your students, you had better take the time to explain, and illustrate, fully the advantages of this approach in order to gain their commitment to it.

Retrieval practice

Oh dear, here I go again, seemingly mocking the very basis of common sense. Ask anybody whether studying less gets better results and I doubt any would agree with you. And yet, here we have the research evidence, replicated very many times, that spending less time studying and more time calling the information to mind — retrieving it from memory — is far more effective.

Once again, cognitive effort emerges as the single reason why this approach is so successful. Let’s face it, trying to remember something that isn’t at your fingertips is hard. Very hard and, to many, too uncomfortable to adopt as a habit. It seems the effort expended in retrieving something at the point of being nearly forgotten is the very thing that strengthens its place in your long-term memory. 

Yes, it would be lovely were it not so and that some other, quasi-magical, method was available but, alas, this is the nature of learning. So, regular writing or sketching what you have previously studied — and feel you may have forgotten — should be a central part of a student’s habit.


While assessment for learning has been on every school and college CPD agenda for over a decade, it is only recently becoming known how potentially damaging it is when not done properly. Indeed, rather shockingly, it seems that an equal number of studies show that feedback can actually depress learning and not elevate it.

This slide summarises the major distinctions in effective feedback. Above all, it should not be ego based. That is to say, feedback should address the task and its execution, not the student and their attributes as you see them. When the personal is involved, there will be, at the very least, psychological distractions, if not damage done. Be positive but make it impersonal.

Linking prior learning

There is no alarming discovery with regards to this strategy. It has been the bedrock of notions of good practice for many decades and presents no surprises to teachers. How to do it in a variety of ways and how to ensure it is a regular and fixed feature of practice is another matter — maybe the topic of a future blog post.

Dual coding

Yes, this is my main area. Once teachers have rid themselves of the myth of learning styles, there can be no excuse for declaring oneself unable to learn visually. This is something my colleague, Ian Harris, and I used to hear now and again from teachers during our visual teaching strategies courses, to which we used to ask and how then did you arrive here this morning with your eyes shut?” 

So whether we like to admit it or not, we all learn better through the combination of words and images, as renowned cognitive scientist Richard Mayer declares in his summary of the decades of research into this topic.

To include this dual coding strategy into your practice, make use of infographics, time lines, diagrams and graphic organisers. 

Metacognitive strategies

Asking probing questions and responding to their demands is, once again, very difficult requiring a great deal of cognitive effort which — you won’t by now be surprise to discover — is the reason for the effectiveness of this strategy. 

The learning scientists

At this point in the presentation, I introduced Doctors Yana Weinstein and Megan Smith, the founders of the Learning Scientists. Both university lecturers in cognitive psychology in the States, they set up their partnership to help teachers learn about the research discoveries of cognitive science. 

As I’ve posted previously, I’ve been working alongside them for a number of months on several projects (see here and here and here). More recently we’ve been producing posters, Powerpoint, bookmarks and even stickers around the themes of this second half of the presentation. And more recently still, my colleague Ian Harris, has been involved in creating cognitive science HOW2s that are currently being released for free access. You can access all these free resources here

Below are some of these resources.

This last slide is a sample from one of the cognitive science HOW2s which translates the student posters first issued into teacher guides to classroom introductions of the strategies. Each speech and thought bubble appears as you click your mouse, ensuring another principle of cognitive science is followed — the learner dictates the pace of learning to avoid cognitive overload of working memory.

Lastly, Dan Williams and I are presenting this same topic at the first-ever researchED FE on Saturday 3 December in London. Details from the researchED events website here. I hope to see you there. Do come along and introduce yourself as I’d love to meet you.


Six Ways Visuals Help Learning

Now that we know from research how learning occurs, we can identify the specific ways in which visuals support six psychological processes.

Read article