How Cognitive Psychology Can Inform Our Teaching

By Adam M. Persky, Mackenzie A. Dolan, and E. Bliss Green

Adam Persky

After 15 years of teaching, here are several truths:

1. Teaching was easier when I knew nothing about cognitive psychology and how we learn.

2. Teaching others how to be better instructors is difficult, because we confuse jargon with how the mind works, focusing on technique versus understanding why the technique works.

Early in my career, I was guilty of using instructional strategies without knowing why they work. The problem with this is you don’t know how to troubleshoot if things do not go well or whether techniques that work in one classroom will work in another.

Mackenzie Dolan

Below are a handful of cognitive psychology findings I have found helpful in my teaching. These findings can translate to any class, provided you understand the underlying principles. To start, here are two definitions to help us establish a common language.

Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of mental processes such as attention, language use, memory, perception, problem-solving, creativity, and thinking. It examines processes we engage in every day without stopping to reflect on the complex series of behaviors that determine our success or failure (e.g., talking on the phone while driving).

Learning is the ability to acquire and retrieve new information and skills to solve future problems. This requires retention—the ability to use information after significant periods without use—and transfer—the use of information to solve problems that arise in a context different from the original context.

With this common understanding, here are some ways cognitive psychology can improve learning.

Principle 1: Test-Potentiated Learning

E. Bliss Green

Retention of information and skills is often increased when some of the learning period is devoted to retrieving the to-be-remembered information. By retrieving, we mean pulling information out of memory. We pull information out of long-term storage and put it back on our work bench (working memory) to solve a problem. Testing slows forgetting and improves the likelihood of later retrieval success.

For example, a student reads a book to learn how nerve cells communicate. What does she do now? Option 1, reread the book (study-restudy) or, Option 2, test herself on the reading (study-test)? Research shows that Option 2 (study-test) leads to less forgetting over time. The test reinforces the content just learned.

An obvious choice for incorporating testing into a course is quizzes; however, audience-response systems (clickers), asking questions during class, or brain dumps (writing everything you know about a topic) are other ways. The key to effectiveness is making the task challenging, but able to be overcome with effort. You can have students respond to questions about the prior class session using clickers, write down their response to an open-ended question to ensure active information retrieval, complete practice exams, or do a Write-Pair-Share, in which they write their idea then discuss with a peer. These types of exercises not only help with information retrieval, but they also can help uncover students’ misconceptions about a topic, improve their memory, and enhance their ability to problem-solve.

Principle 2: Spacing of Practice

Spreading out opportunities for practice and retrieval over time improves retention. Spacing may mean bringing back older topics throughout class or intentionally breaking up a project into smaller components. Having quizzes or clicker questions on older material can help students retain that information. Students also benefit from activities that prompt them to relate new topics to older topics.

We conducted a study of spacing quizzes for students who had to learn the generic names of brand name drugs (e.g., Advil—Ibuprofen). We found that when we had a second, unannounced quiz given at a random time after the first quiz, students retained much more information 6 weeks after the semester ended. While cramming for an exam works for acute performance, spacing study periods improves their retention.

I believe in cumulative testing because of the benefits of retrieval and importance of spacing testing to improve retention. Every assessment I give has older material on it, and sometimes the older material is worth more points than the newer material.

Principle 3: Elaboration

Elaboration is the development of an existing idea by incorporating new information to augment the idea. This method improves retention by adding greater detail to a memory or idea, allowing it to be remembered more accurately.

Some strategies that help with elaboration include linking new material to old material or to students’ lives (personalization); assigning students papers or presentations; and integrating discussion, role-play, experiential learning, and concept maps or other visualization techniques.

When I was a student, I used to “teach” my couch physiology. I would ask it questions and see if I could answer my own questions. I would take on the instructor role by elaborating on the content and asking “why” questions, identifying examples of how topics related to everyday life.

As an instructor, I ask students to put concepts in their own words, relate concepts to their own lives, and identify content from class sessions that are still unclear and why.

Principle 4: Transfer-Appropriate Processing

In general, we remember or retrieve information the way we initially learned it—that is, memory will be best when the processes engaged in during encoding/learning match those engaged in during retrieval.

For example, list the months of the year in order. You might very quickly go from January to December. Why? That is the way we learned them. Now, list the months of the year in alphabetical order: “April, August, December, July… no wait, June, July…” You are much slower and much more prone to error. This was not the way we learned them.

In the classroom setting, if you lecture to students and teach them facts but your exam questions are application, students will do poorly. Just because students know facts does not mean they can apply them to solve problems. The ability to transfer, or use the information to solve problems that arise in a context different from the original, is actually quite difficult. So if you want students to apply information, you will have to teach them how to apply information. Teach the way you want students to recall information.

Teaching a topic from different perspectives may be helpful. If you solve a problem once, you know how to solve that particular version of the problem. If you solve the same problem three or four times, you start making generalities on how to solve that problem—you develop a schema.  By showing different perspectives, students can form a schema or generalities about the problem, which should maximize the effects of transfer-appropriate processing because they have more encoding formats to pull from to solve a problem than just one.

These are just a few principles that have greatly impacted my teaching. While some may be difficult for students and require effort, I tell students to consider the time and effort it took them to learn to play music or a sport. I try to impart on them that most things that are learned do not necessarily come easy.


Adam M. Persky is a PhD Clinical Professor in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Mackenzie A. Dolan is a PharmD candidate in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bliss Green is a PharmD candidate in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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