Cognitive Psychology Applied to Education

I believe the best teaching and pedagogy integrates research and other scholarly work. My training and research in memory deeply informs my approach to presenting materials and structuring my courses. My basic philosophy is that learning course content requires repeated practice – much like learning to play a musical instrument or a sport. An athlete will not practice just once or twice for a few days or hours before an important event or meet. Rather, regular, challenging training sessions are a regular part of the athlete’s routine. Studying, in order to lead to effective, long-term learning, also requires time and effort.

Three fundamental principles of learning and memory I emphasize in my teaching are Distributed Practice, Interleaving, and Retrieval Practice. Distributed Practice, also referred to as Spacing, involves spreading study or learning events over time. This is in contrast to massed study, or cramming. Given the same amount of time, spacing results in better retention than cramming (see Carpenter et al., 2012). Distributed practice is effective across a variety of materials – from word lists to prose passages to images, and at all ages, from early childhood to old age. By studying for shorter amounts of time over a longer period of time, the memory trace is strengthened. This, in turn, results in better performance in the long run.

A closely related form of studying is Interleaving, in which material from different units or topics is mixed in a single study session, rather than blocked by topic. For example, in a math course, students might learn different types of problems (e.g., when to add or multiply exponents). In typical situations, practice sets include problems of one type or the other. Thus, when students practice, they are engaging in rote retrieval of the rule – but not learning when to apply the rule. Interleaving, or intermixing, different types of problem sets requires that students remember, first of all, which rule to apply. Interleaving has also been found to be effective when learning to identify artists’ work (see Kornell et al., 2010). Retrieval Practice involves  the use of retrieval from memory as a learning tool.

Tests and quizzes are highly effective tools for promoting long-term retention and learning and are superior in most cases to repeated study and even to practices such as making concept maps (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011). Taking practice tests or low-stakes quizzes not only allows students to assess their level of preparation, it effectively strengthens the memory trace – not just for the material on the quiz, but also for related, non-tested material (Chan, 2010). Importantly, testing is beneficial for a wide variety of materials – from vocabulary to complex passages, to images and maps. For more detailed information on the effectiveness of testing, you can read some posts on the CogBlog (tag: Testing Effect), such as this one about “retrieval-induced facilitation” or this one, a more in depth review of the effect.


For specific tips on how to study more effectively, click here!

Faculty, for specific tips on how to incorporate these ideas in your classes, click here.

Click here for slides from a presentation given at the Learning Differences Fair in November, 2013 in which I discussed some effective study strategies.

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