Discovering some Cognitive Psychology

One feature of the history of Classics that I sometimes allude to in my classes is the crucial contribution which the stories of Classical myth made to the development of modern psychology through their influence on Freudian psychoanalysis. On hearing about this, pupils’ ears tend to prick up. Perhaps before anything else, it may be the very mention of the word ‘psychology’ that piques their interest. I sense that many of them have a clear notion that Psychology is the discipline, before any other, that can explain how people’s minds work. If I am correct about this, I would probably appear a bit unusual, if not something of a sceptic, to them, since I take it as an uncontroversial given that, alongside psychology, literature, philosophy, anthropology and the history of ideas (among other disciplines) all have equally important things to impart about the workings of people’s minds. I think this is the case because, rather than in spite of, the fact that my mother was for many years a practising child psychologist. Any temptation to assume a great deal about the overarching or ‘meta-‘ significance of her academic discipline and its methodologies was one to which she did not yield. My general picture of her approach to psychological research is one in which data and experiment can present interesting and important information, but that wider generalities need to be arrived at only tentatively – and provisionally.

A similar approach to psychological research to that espoused by my mother was evident yesterday, over the course of a day of training at the Quarry theatre in Bedford. Some recent findings in cognitive psychology were presented and its relevance for school education discussed. The presenters go by the moniker ‘The Learning Scientists’ and they had travelled from the US to speak to about 200 of us (which they did, very engagingly). The Learning Scientists introduced cognitive psychology as a relatively new field of research with roots in cognitive science (by no means an ancient discipline itself!). My familiarity with the latter field is pretty much limited to my having read a couple of Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker books (one of which – The Blank Slate – I particularly enjoyed), and to the fact that the philosopher Bernard Williams expressed severe misgivings about some of the bolder claims made by cognitive scientists like Pinker before he died. It was safe to say, in any event, that Cognitive Psychology was pretty unfamiliar territory for me.

The emphasis of the day’s session was on enabling pupils to retain information better, and we were introduced to a series of techniques which can be used over the course of a period of study (a school year seemed to be the model we were working with) to achieve this aim. The big three techniques were Spacing, Interleaving and Retrieval Practice, to use the appropriate terminology. By contrast with these, ‘Mass Learning’ was introduced as a technique which different studies have shown leads to comparatively poorer pupil memory retention.


Massed Teaching was the first concept to attract my attention: this is where pupils are presented with information, all in one go, or over a strictly delimited time period and then tested on it. They will only encounter it again in the context of the exam room at the end of the year. I asked if this style of learning, which we were assured has serious drawbacks, in fact works best for some learners: from the limited data available, I was assured, it doesn’t! It was impossible not to reflect as I found this out that my own preparation for exams in the past has very likely been sub-optimal in just this way – particularly in the context of my legal training, where short-term ‘memory dumping’ was the norm (at least for me).

Happily the technique of Spacing – which involves returning to topics already covered on an occasional basis, and reaffirming what has been learnt – is one I already employ in my classroom. I cannot claim any great insight here: it’s more a matter of necessity. I find it difficult to imagine a version of effective language teaching which does not involve returning periodically to grammatical concepts and vocabulary that have already been introduced. Still, it was interesting to learn that this is a technique that seems to hold clear benefits in other settings.

Interleaving has a similar underlying idea. It involves incorporating material that has already been covered alongside material that is currently being covered as part of the learning process. So, in Maths, it might mean putting a simultaneous equation next to a differential equation as part of the same piece of classwork, even if the two are covered formally as separate topics. This again is something that language learning more or less necessarily involves as a matter of course: however, I came away with some thoughts about how I might try to incorporate this technique into my teaching of historical subject matter.

Retrieval Practice is buttressed by the finding that the more pupils are asked to attempt the task of ‘retrieving’ information they have encountered over the course of a given time period, the more likely they are to remember it. This has implications for testing. Lots of small periods of study and practice testing leads to better memorisation than do long periods of study and only very few tests. Long periods of reading, or taking notes on exactly what is written in a textbook, is also not an effective approach. ‘Retrieving’ effectively entails picking out core ideas, which involves having done this multiple times previously and (ideally) in a range of ways.

A key overall aim of the session was to enable teachers to help pupils remember more of what they’re taught, so that they are more likely to perform well in their end of year exams. This is surely a laudable aim, given how many children struggle to do just this. At the same time, however, I think there is room to question the extent to which certain kinds of memorisation (particularly rote-learning) are being required by our current exam systems.

In some subjects, there may be a perfectly good argument that a lot *more* rote learning might be desirable (the geography pupil who can score top grades without knowing their capital cities comes to mind here). In others (and here I think primarily of the sciences, given that cutting edge science is increasingly focussed on niche areas), less memorisation might be an attractive way forward.

More might be done, perhaps, to test general knowledge across broad areas of a whole academic field (and this necessarily involves at least some rote learning), rather than focus exclusively on a few key topics, at school level.  It might be that school pupils would be more enthusiastic about their studies if more *general* knowledge of this sort, and less memorisation and testing of applied understanding of specific topics, were required for their exams. I wonder how far this sort of proposal might find wider support in the UK.

Certainly, the extent to which children (and university students) should be – and are – expected to remember detailed compendia of information for their exams is an area of debate which is not going to disappear from sight. Within this debate, the kind of remembering pupils are doing (and the Learning Scientists made clear that we see very different *types* of remembering happening in our schools) surely matters a great deal. It matters, for example, whether students are remembering in a certain way (like the brain-dump, in which they are primarily learning in order to leap hurdles, and then forgetting), or whether they are learning to retain information more permanently with a view – eventually – to becoming members of an informed adult population. I anticipate that the insights of Cognitive psychology may help pave the way toward a more satisfactory future status quo in this regard.