Applying the Science of Cognitive Development to the Classroom

Applying the science of cognitive development to the classroom may seem like overkill for many, but I suspect not for the individuals reading this blog. We hear and see fellow faculty follow the same approaches to teaching for decades, patting themselves on the back when they so deftly transferred their notes from yellow paper to PowerPoint presentations a decade or two ago. Today, they use those same Powerpoint presentations. Many still follow a two or three test pattern. When students do not master the material, they belittle the students. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. There have been a movement on foot to apply the science of cognitive development to the classroom. This is particularly evident from a day long conference on this topic that was held at Harvard . Though many of these issues have been discussed in this blog, over the next few weeks, I am going to bring to you some of my favorite messages from cognitive development and how the lessons learned in the lab can be used in the applied statistics classroom.

Since the benefit of testing was brought up at Harvard’s Conference, work popularized by Henry L. Roediger, III (e.g., we will begin here.

Here are a few important points to know about self testing.

  1. Students benefit from the act of attempting to retrieve information, even if they are unsuccessful.
  2.  Free recall yields the best future retrieval, thus, it is important to encourage students to attempt to recall answers WITHOUT looking at their notes or trying to get a cue from something like even a photo in their book
  3.  If, after an attempt at free recall retrieval has failed, then, a brief cued recall should be used … but, this should be taken as a sign that more studying is needed.
  4. Incredibly … let’s just say there are 10 concepts that students have learned, and you only have time to have them “test” 5 of those concepts … the even if the specific topic was not retrieved during testing, the act of self testing, just in that general area of knowledge, benefits ALL of the concepts. This is critically important, because their just isn’t enough time in the day to get students to test on everything we are covering in class.
  5. This shouldn’t surprise most of us … but students do not seem to come up with the right rules of self testing, and instead HAVE TO BE TOLD … when they do their homework, close their notes and book to get the greatest benefit. 
  6.  And yes, self testing gains much greater storage of information in a shorter period of time than massive studying.

So, how should this look in your classroom?

  1. Though there are many who feel multiple choice questions are the bane of education, there is some benefit to them with regard to just getting students memorize symbols and terms. So, it’s a start, but not an end. There are several ways you can adopt multiple choice testing.

a. This semester I have 5 questions on-line after every class. They cover the material that was for homework that was due in that class period. This is my first semester trying this (based on student responses from last semester’s class). So far, students find this fairly favorable. This is graded. Each quiz is worth 2.5 points, and it will sum to a full test grade. (Yes, I’m dropping the lowest few grades).

b. I also have a symbol’s quiz that students can take as often as they want. I will open it when we have covered all of the major symbols, at about the 7th week of the semester. Though many students never touch this non-graded quiz. Other students complete it weekly to make sure that they keep all of the symbols straight in their heads.

c. I also have a practice final exam. My final exam is (sadly) all multiple choice. I will be adding questions to the practice test, based on areas of weakness from my last semesters class. d. There are other ways to use online multiple choice quizzes, graded or not. Some faculty permit students to keep on repeating quizzes until they achieve a particular benchmark.

2. Back when I was an elementary school teacher, we were taught about the “lesson cycle.” We were instructed to start off each class with a “hook” or “focus” of students attention. This was called, an anticipatory set. Even during my early years as a teacher, I recognized that one of the best ways to get students focused on what was coming, was to have them retrieve the information that would serve as a basis for the newly learned material. Thus, to this day, I start off almost every class with something akin to a “quiz.” It’s not graded; it gets students mentally focused, and it provides students with all of the benefits of self testing. And, unlike multiple choice questions, I can ask more complex questions, like how are the one sample t-test and the z-test similar and how are they different? Here are a few links to examples of a “lesson cycle”,…/The%20Lesson%20Cycle.ppt

3. Probably the most important tool we have for students for self testing is the homework we provide and how we instruct them to complete it. The textbook, Statistical Concepts for the Behavioral Sciences, 4/e, have extensive supplements for students, including advanced (higher cognitive level) questions for each chapter and Exercises and Assignments for Students, a free supplement that includes everything from calculations to practicing terms. Finally, within the body of the textbook, there are three different types of homework problems. Testing Your Knowledge, Chapter Review, and Integrating Your Knowledge. The latter questions force students to integrate information from multiple chapters in order to solve a “real world” problem with statistics. My students know … all of this homework must be completed with their books and notes closed. Then, they get the benefit of self testing. In all cases, the answers are provided to the students for them to self correct.

4. Though this last recommendation is a bit “silly” … it works. I have been encouraging students to create their own quizzes or tests, but they always ask … how do I create the questions? I encourage students to always write down any question I may ask in class. Then use my in class questions as a basis for self testing questions. I wish students just came to us knowing how to learn. Many of my students don’t. So it is incumbent upon us to explicitly teach them how to study. The application of self testing is a tremendous tool too many students haven’t learned to adopt in their study strategies. Hopefully, with encouragement and instruction by us, we can see students who get more out of applied statistics than just the credit hours!

Anyone who has used self testing with applied statistics students is encouraged to tell us, how did it go.



Filed under Engaging students, Homework/ Assignments, Pedagogy

5 responses to “Applying the Science of Cognitive Development to the Classroom

  1. Leslie Miller

    I must admit to hating quizzes and multiple choice for a writing class, my field. A colleague, however, has told me she does much like you do with a quiz at the first of class because these short tests of knowledge gives the students a sense of accomplishment that she can build on toward higher order thinking. Students don’t know how to learn, as you point out. I have found that giving students multiple ways of seeing the organization in writing–whether their own or in the writing of others–has begun to help them with comprehension and also with constructing their own writing. To do this, we look more deeply into shorter sections of the larger readings they do. Just one of those exercises helps them to understand the readings better.

    All this is to say that this idea of applying cognitive science to the classroom is worth doing. I don’t know a great deal about cognitive psychology and wonder if you could share what the seminal articles on this topic are.

    • Hi Leslie,
      I agree with you about the benefit of writing in comprehension, especially in applied statistics. For each chapter, I have students write, what amounts to 5 essay answers related to the topic for this very reason.

      As for the seminal articles … that, too, is a great idea. If I don’t get to it this week (since it’s spring break) I will most certainly add something in the summer.

      Thank you for your comments.

  2. Karl J. Kinkead, PhD

    Your comments is so true regarding how to learn “I wish students just came to us knowing how to learn. Many of my students don’t. So it is incumbent upon us to explicitly teach them how to study.” So very very true, how badly are we failing our students in high school when we “teach to the test” and abandon teaching for reason. No wonder our adults have so much difficulty learning statistics.

  3. Pingback: A review of tips for teaching applied statistics from Statistical Sage | Statistical Sage Blog

  4. darinlhammond

    This is an engaging discussion, and one that recently has become a topic of debate in higher education. There was a recent journal article that criticized learning theorists for not incorporating real cognitive science into their learning models. I think this is an important task for scholars – to keep up and incorporate cognitive science since it deals with the foundations of learning.

    This is a challenge for educational theorists who adhere to values and models that are hard to alter or give up. When a model is in error or conflicts with science, it seems that we have the responsibility to adapt to what is current. Cognitive science and educational theory united will benefit both teacher and student. Thank you for your discussion.

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