Central premise of the theory
After spending much of the last three years reading the work of prominent cognitive psychologists and researchers, I have been greatly inspired by the cognitive learning theory. As my teaching team explored how character strengths impact students academic performance, I read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, and Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel.
These research texts have been quite pivotal for me, shifting my approach from the social-constructivist focus on the learner and the environment to include advances in cognitive neuroscience and consider “what was happening inside the mind was equally, if not more, important” (Kretchmar, 2015). Understanding that learners can increase their own capacity for learning by understanding how the brain works has shifted my instruction away from simply teaching my content but to also informing my students about how their brains can best absorb and retain the content. Cognitive learning theory supports the idea “that what happens inside the mind — the mental processing of information — is an important part of learning” (Kretchmar, 2015).
This learning theory meet 21st century learning when placed in the context of the ASSURE instructional design model, a process that helps educators assure effective use of media in instruction. The ASSURE model begins by building a deep knowledge base of the learner. These pretests, surveys, or demographic evaluations drive the instructional design as a starting point. On top of providing teachers with valuable data, they raise students’ awareness about their own learning by supporting metacognition. From there, the ASSURE models asks the teacher to consider what resources might meet the students’ needs. It also explicitly prompts the teacher and students to reflect on the process and assess their learning.
Jean Piaget, while widely-recognized by teachers as a leader in child development, is one of the leaders of cognitive learning theory. He “applied biological principles to the study of intelligence” to advance our understanding of the interplay between neuroscience and learning (Kretchmar, 2015). By introducing researchers, theorists, and educators to the concept of schema, Piaget providing learners with the mental structures around which to structure instructional design modules.
In more a modern meta-analysis, Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel turn “fashionable ideas…on their head” in their research on memory and cognitive theory. Make It Stick]. Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines, the authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners” (Brown et al., 2014). These concrete classroom applications are paired with a clear explanation of cognitive theory research.
Articles and books by key theorist(s)
Make It Stick
Theoretical concepts to support the design of strategies and activities
If teachers want their students to retain content knowledge to retain content knowledge, the theory, research, and strategies in Make It Stick details what educators should and should not do. Within that, the research also addresses some of the common fallacies of educational theory and how learning works. When discussing how students learn best, many students and teachers talk about adapting lessons to meet various learning styles. “Teachers are urged to offer classroom material in many different ways so that each student can take it in in the way he or she is best equipped to learn it [; however,] the wrongheadedness of this conclusion is manifold” (Brown et al., 2014). But educators need to beware.
The authors strongly advise educators and learners to move beyond the false security that comes from learning styles. In fact, there’s a whole impassioned chapter devoted to this topic: “While it’s true that most all of us have a decided preference for how we like to learn new material, the premise behind learning styles is …not supported by science, and it instills a corrosive, misguided sense of diminished potential” (Brown et al., 2014). The brain does not learn best according to these preferred methods of instruction. Moreover, the authors go on to discuss the necessity of embracing difficulties.
Today, scientists understand the brain is like a muscle that can “change itself throughout life and people [are able] to influence those changes and raise their IQs” (Brown et al., 2014). Essentially, the brain is malleable and can be built up over time through exercise. Many teachers today understand this as a “growth mindset.” Researchers and cognitive theorist Carol Dweck suggests “it’s not always the people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest” (2006). Her research surrounding fixed and growth mindsets offer educators empirical grounding for what many have already know: that IQ and talent don’t necessarily always bring success; instead, effort and ethos make a difference in achievement and learning.
Instructional design model – connections to theory
The ASSURE Model supports cognitive learning theory by analyzing the data that details information about the learners’ biological principles. It clearly identifies the learning goals, and through specific learning techniques—especially those concerned with memory and content retention—to support students’ understanding. With teachers use of appropriate research materials and methodologies, they can present and engage students with the content. Finally, students mindset and metacognition allows them to reflect on their learning gaps and revise their understanding.
Application to 21st century learning and teaching
First, it’s important to teach students how the brain works. This has a direct correlation on their ability to learn. Even though, I don’t teach psychology, I explicitly teach my English and US History classes about the brain. I show them videos on neuroplasticy. We read Articles of the Week about learning and the brain. We talk about it until they understand how learning works. When that happens, their learning becomes more efficacious.
Next, I debunk the “learning styles” philosophy. Far too many students complain that they didn’t do well on a test because “the teacher doesn’t teach according to my learning style” This is a cop-out. I used to ask about my students’ preferences on a “Who Are You?” survey at the beginning of the school year. After reading this book, I’ve eliminated that section entirely. Moreover, if I’m planning a new lesson, I used to ask: “How can I meet my kinesthetic, musical, and visual learners? Now, I ask: “What cost would I pay to ‘precise and enduring’ content retention if I spend time addressing these various preferences?” Some teachers might speak up and argue for the importance of student-directed learning; however, that goes to a broader philosophical debate of what is more important: doing the tough work of content mastery or following our own paths. Under cognitive learning theory, these desirable difficulties push students to greater understanding.
In addition to teaching students about the brain, it is vital to specifically teach and model how to study and to discredit faulty study habits. Teachers need to stop plowing through more content. We talk about “depth not breadth” all the time. If we don’t teach them how to learn, what’s the point of teaching the content? We all have fallen victim to various study habit myths. Time-wasters, like “underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills,” actually create a false sense of knowing and can fade quickly (Brown et al., 2014).
Finally, I would simultaneously create desirable difficulties in the classroom. Unfortunately, Angela Duckworth’s research on “grit” has become a misused and misunderstood buzzword lately.Grit is much more than trying hard in one moment. It’s about focus, commitment, and purpose over time. In our classrooms, we can introduce desirable difficulties (i.e. “grit rehearsals”) by applying cognitive learning theory in conjunction with the ASSURE model.
Learning strategies/activities based on theoretical concepts
“How to Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning” written by Drs. Agarwal, Roediger, McDaniel, and McDermott, researchers out of Washington University in St. Louis.
After reading the article, rather than rereading or underlying content material, which builds a false sense of knowing, do a “download” or “brain dump.” This strategy asks learners to practice generation, elaboration, & reflection techniques.
Once you’ve identify gaps in your knowledge, watch this video, which translates the cognitive science into more practical classroom application.
Formative: Use these flashcards to reinforces your learning. This presents desirable difficulties into our professional development but it also introduces some student study tips, such as forming a habit of self-quizzing, interleaving retrieval practice, and mixing together different problem types.
Summative: Take this low-stakes quiz immediately after learning. Doing so refreshes learners’ retrieval knowledge and helps them identify gaps in their knowledge.
Philosophy of instructional design – main ideas of your personal philosophy
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Belknap Press.
DeHart, C. (n.d.). Great learning advice from Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Retrieved March 13, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88X4zqkRWFs