I  recently gave a presentation called The Cognitive Science of Creative Subjects at Learning2Asia, a conference which I thought was an incredibly well-run by Nanjing International School. The format of the workshop was really fun: Teachers do mostly hands-on, design-related experiments on themselves to sort of demonstrate how different principles in cognitive science work. I also tried to translate the principles into useful classroom applications, and to tell the story of each of the research studies that the workshop was based around.

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The barrier in the middle separated the experimental group from the control group in this unique workshop format.

Overall, it was a hit! Packed room, great discussions by the participants, and a ton of fun. As would be predicted by the protege effect (Chase, Chin, Oppezzo, & Schwartz, 2009), I learned a lot by preparing for the presentation. As a parent, which I am, I would want my child’s teacher to consider some basic principles of cognitive science during their planning, especially once she’s reached the point in which semantic and biologically secondary knowledge (See Geary, 2002) start to make up the majority of the curriculum. Here are four principles (taken from the slide deck that I presented in my workshop) and their corresponding classroom applications, which I believe to have enhanced my teaching. Scroll to the bottom for the full list of the articles I used to build the workshop and mine away!

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg

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Classroom applications:
  1. Avoid situations that split students’ attention between more than one thing.
  2. Create activities that do not require students to multitask.
  3. Apply the “Goldilocks rule” to ensure optimal arousal in the classroom.
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Classroom applications:
  1. Always be aware of working memory limitations.
  2. Use worked examples, process sheets, and scaffolding to optimize cognitive load and foster independence.
  3. Know that novices are easily overloaded. “Experts” can be released into the wild.
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Classroom applications:
  1. If students have insufficient background knowledge, then build it. If they already have the knowledge, then activate it.
  2. Coordinate with other teachers so that students can apply new understandings across multiple contexts.
  3. Have students pull from the internet, but know that it pales in comparison to also having rich schema in long term memory.
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Classroom applications:
  1. Ask students to individually retrieve knowledge learned from last lesson rather than going over it for them or letting “bright” peers remember for them.
  2. Vary the conditions of retrieval practice (whiteboards, games, Kahoot!, Quizlet, flashcards, etc.) to increase effort and engagement.
  3. Give students many, many chances for retrieval – and space them out – rather than giving just one large test during a unit.



Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2012). Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance. International Journal of Human Computer Studies, 70(2), 156–168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2011.10.003

Fischer, R., & Plessow, F. (2015). Efficient multitasking: Parallel versus serial processing of multiple tasks. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(September), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01366

Working Memory Model:

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why Students Don’t Like School. American Educator, Spring 200, 4–13. Retrieved from https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/WILLINGHAM%282%29.pdf

Social Categorization:

Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P. & Flament, C. (1971) ‘Social categorization and intergroup behaviour’, European Journal of Social Psychology, 1(2), 149-178.

Yerkes-Dodson Law (Optimal Arousal):

Diamond, D. M., Campbell, A. M., Park, C. R., Halonen, J., & Zoladz, P. R. (2007). The temporal dynamics model of emotional memory processing: A synthesis on the neurobiological basis of stress-induced amnesia, flashbulb and traumatic memories, and the Yerkes-Dodson law. Neural Plasticity, 2007. https://doi.org/10.1155/2007/60803

Expertise Reversal Effect:

Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). The Expertise Reversal Effect. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 23–31. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15326985EP3801

Priming effects:

Vohs, K. D., Mead, N. L., & Goode, M. R. (2008). Merely activating the concept of money changes personal and interpersonal behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(3), 208–212. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00576.x

Bateson, M., Callow, L., Holmes, J. R., Redmond Roche, M. L., & Nettle, D. (2013). Do images of “watching eyes” induce behaviour that is more pro-social or more normative? A field experiment on littering. PLoS ONE, 8(12), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0082055

Cognitive Load:

Paas, F., & Sweller, J. (2012). An Evolutionary Upgrade of Cognitive Load Theory: Using the Human Motor System and Collaboration to Support the Learning of Complex Cognitive Tasks. Educational Psychology Review, 24(1), 27–45. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-011-9179-2

Domain Knowledge and Brainstorming:

Rietzschel, E. F., Nijstad, B. A., & Stroebe, W. (2007). Relative accessibility of domain knowledge and creativity: The effects of knowledge activation on the quantity and originality of generated ideas. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(6), 933–946. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2006.10.014

Worked Examples and Process sheets:

Ward, M., & Sweller, J. (1990). Structuring effective worked examples. Cognition and Instruction, 7, 1–39.

Nadolski, R. J., Kirschner, P. A., & Van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2005). Optimizing the number of steps in learning tasks for complex skills. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 75(2), 223–237. https://doi.org/10.1348/000709904X22403


Wasik, B. A., & Jacobi-Vessels, J. L. (2017). Word Play: Scaffolding Language Development Through Child-Directed Play. Early Childhood Education Journal, 45(6), 769–776. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-016-0827-5

Working Memory Capacity:

Cowan, N. (2000). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 87–185.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0043158

The Research Question (Podcast)

Testing Effect:

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249–255. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x

Biologically Primary vs. Secondary: 

Geary, D. C. (2002). Principles of evolutionary educational psychology. Learning and Individual Differences, 12(4), 317–345. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1041-6080(02)00046-8

Protege Effect: 

Chase, C. C., Chin, D. B., Oppezzo, M. A., & Schwartz, D. L. (2009). Teachable agents and the protégé effect: Increasing the effort towards learning. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18(4), 334–352. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10956-009-9180-4

8 thoughts on “Lessons from Cognitive Science that I’ve Used to Improve my Teaching

    1. Yes, groups were randomly assigned and went into each experiment blind to whether they were in the treatment condition or the control condition. I broke it apart for one as well in which there were American teachers and non-American teachers to control for background knowledge. It was fun!


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