An introduction to cognitive science

By Dom Shibli FCCT

Dom Shibli, cognitive science

Dom is a Senior Lecturer in Secondary Science at the University of Hertfordshire. He is a proud founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching and contributes to the CogSciSci website. He applauds the use of cognitive science within the teaching profession but hopes that it doesn’t become the next fad that ‘we tried and it didn’t work.’

The latest silver bullet?

Cognitive science has become ubiquitous in schools, filling hours of INSET training and bookshelves with ideas about retrieval practice, dual coding, and cognitive load theory (CLT).  I do believe this is a good thing but we must learn from the magical silver bullets of the past which didn’t deliver on what they promised and recognise that it should come with a health warning.

The reason for the health warning is that cognitive science is not yet an exact science in the same way that Newton’s Laws of Motion are. Cognitive scientists come from a broad umbrella of disciplines (like psychology and neuroscience) and are hypothesizing about how the mind works. Often the experiments they carry out are in small, controlled laboratory conditions and can’t necessarily be replicated in the far more complex environment of the school classroom.

Retrieval practice and spaced learning

What cognitive science does is give a teacher a set of principles that can be used in the classroom (see Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction as a good starting point). These generic principles include:

  • Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning
  • Engage students in weekly and monthly review

(Rosenshine 2012)

Retrieval practice is a strategy teachers can use to facilitate learners bringing previously taught material to mind and so strengthening the retrieval and storage of that information. This might look like a low stakes quiz at the start of a lesson to check understanding from the previous lesson. Spaced learning can add another layer of complexity to this by checking recall of material taught last week or last month. I really like this because it  sends the message that everything you are taught in school is important through the year in that subject.

But this gets really exciting when you consider what you do with the data from the quiz. Instead of trying to equate this to a grade or level, the information is better served helping the classroom teacher plan their next lesson. This is not an admission of failure but should be liberating for a teacher because you are responding to the needs of the students and reflecting upon how you taught the lesson in the first place. If most of the class struggled with the questions on ionic bonding, for example, then perhaps you need to re-teach it or bank that information for a recap session at a later date.

Dual coding and cognitive load theory

Dual coding

The concept of dual coding is based upon the mind’s ability to process visual and auditory stimuli simultaneously. It is often quite easy to follow the narrative in a film, but when a teacher stands up in front of a class and uses images, their voice, and words on a slide all at the same time, the learner finds it harder to focus their attention and process the different stimuli. By using images and words skilfully a teacher can make the learning process more efficient.

Cognitive load theory

Cognitive load theory is a theory that supports the goal of effective and efficient knowledge transfer between people (Sweller et al., 2019). It takes into the account the characteristics of the working memory, which has a limited capacity, and the long term memory, which is meant to be limitless. We can only process small amounts of information in the working memory at a time. However, the burden on the working memory is reduced if a learner has prior knowledge they can access from the long term memory. If we use the characteristics of the working memory, we can improve teacher instruction and plan learning activities that are sympathetic to the limited capacity of the working memory. These theories are particularly pertinent to know because there’s strong evidence that the quality of teacher instruction has an impact on student outcomes (Coe et al., 2014).

If we return to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, the three below all relate to how a teacher might explain new information:

  • Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step
  • Provide models
  • Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.

(Rosenshine 2012)

These all require planning by the teacher. Using dual coding or one of the effects identified by cognitive load theory can provide the teacher with presentation skills which help learners to better access the material. Teachers often use PowerPoint but their slides can be poorly designed so that the learner either doesn’t know where to focus their attention or is overloaded with information. Andy Tharby’s excellent blog post ‘Using cognitive load theory to improve slideshow presentations’ is a good place to start developing your PowerPoint skills.

Not the be all and end all?

What cognitive science doesn’t do for the teacher is help with your own subject knowledge. You have to develop that yourself. A low stakes retrieval practice quiz can help students bring to mind previous taught work, but you have to remember that you have to teach well in the first place and design classroom activities that students can engage with, think about and use to construct their own understanding. Whether you are teaching how blood sugar levels are controlled in the body or internal energy and energy transfers you have to know your subject! Where cognitive science comes in is in helping you to plan and present your lessons in a more effective way.


Rosenshine, B (2012) The Principles of Instruction. Research based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator 2012 [date accessed 8.9.19]

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. & Major, L.M (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. CEM, Durham University and The Sutton Trust [accessed 8.9.19]

Sweller, J., Tindall-Ford, S. & Agostinho, S. (2019) Advances in Cognitive Load Theory (Local/Global Issues in Education). Abingdon, Oxford. Routledge

Tharby, A (2017) Using cognitive load theory to improve slideshow presentations [accessed 8.9.19]

Further reading

Adam Robbins explores the benefits of SLOP in this blog post.

Helen Skelton looks at revision strategies drawing on cognitive science in this blog post.

The CogSciSci website is run by a grassroots group of teachers and other education professionals and provides ideas and resources for using cognitive science principles in science teaching.

Developed by cognitive science and subject experts, the Oxford Revise Science revision guides established the three-step method for revision success: Knowledge, Retrieval and Practice.

UK Schools save 50% on Oxford Revise Science revision guides for KS3, GCSE and A Level students.

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