Using the latest research in cognitive science to develop learning materials

My job at Cambridge University Press has me developing textbooks and online courses daily. Most of what we do is curriculum-led, i.e. we develop a new book or course from a curriculum released by a ministry of education. Using the curriculum as the starting point, we plan the modules and topics, selecting the features of the course (e.g. activities, assessment, case studies, etc.) based on what is required by the curriculum. We then decide on additional features based on the traditional approaches to textbook development, i.e. let’s start each chapter with a list of objectives and end with a summary. In online course development, these choices are made based on what is available in the learning management system, e.g. can we efficiently use an interactive multiple-choice component or user forum section. Most of this is standard (and in some cases required) for the project. What happens, though, if we were also to include features that responded to the latest cognitive science research? 

Luckily this research is available, and some of it fits directly into existing practices around learning material development. The aim with this research is to move new knowledge and skill from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. Here’s a high-level overview of my top four learning strategies and how we can incorporate into learning material development.

Interleaving 

So what exactly is interleaving? It’s the simultaneous learning of more than one concept at once. This process could see you alternating between two topics in a learning session or mixing up the content in one block of learning content. The reason this works is that it trains your brain to discriminate between problem types or specimens. That is, instead of rote learning something you rather learn to identify unique characteristics or identifiers of a problem which can then be applied to another type of problem or used to identify a similar situation in a different context.

In a textbook or course, we structure the content in chapters or modules that focus on one topic or skill at a time. One strategy to bring interleaving into textbook development is to add a feature which consists of content from another chapter, either looking forward to content still to cover or looking back at content already learnt. In an online course, we can intersperse regular hyperlinks to other material in a content block. When it comes to assessment, questions can cover both the material in the previous module as well as topics or skills from the rest of the course (see Quizzing below). 

Spaced Repetition

Well, it looks like cramming doesn’t work! At least if we want to learn something and hold on to this knowledge. This type of practice is counterintuitive as we may think we have retained the information for good, but our short term memory has stored it. This approach could work if we had an exam to pass the next day but does not work for long-term learning or skills acquisition. To retain information on a new topic, we need to study something more than once, and there needs to be time lapsed between these study session. For new material, this could be a break of a day or so between returning to the content. As you become more familiar with the topic, it can be referred to on a weekly and then monthly basis. This spaced repetition means you are using your long-term memory to store this new knowledge.

A way to do this in textbooks is to have a regular revision section. We could structure this revision at the end of the chapter or the book. This revision approach forces spaced repetition. In an online course, this strategy is even more straightforward, where reminders can be set at regular intervals (at a system or user level) to send an alert or an email to the learner to return to a study topic.

Quizzing

It turns out that an essential educational tool, used in schools and classes across the world, really does work. Quizzing, either self or in a class, should be the primary approach to learning new content according to the latest research in cognitive science. The practice of retrieving new knowledge, which happens through quizzing, creates longer-lasting memories than simply revising the material. The ability to identify key ideas, and define or rephrase them, which can also occur through quizzing, moves the information from your short-term to long-term memory. Regular quizzing is recommended, and the harder something is to remember the better – this feeds into the spaced repetition strategy above. If we can relate new knowledge to existing knowledge through quizzing, this also strengthens this knowledge retention. Can anyone remember interleaving? Lastly, quizzing provides a measure of what you know by identifying weaknesses and showing you where you need to focus.

Assessment features are provided in all textbooks as a rule. These generally test the content in the previous chapter or module, providing levelled questions from lower-order thinking to higher. This existing practice can be extending to take cognisant of the above – including more questions that ask the learner to define or rephrase key concepts and connecting ideas to existing knowledge. For online courses, where learning platforms come with interactive assessment components, the above also applies. However, here we can also automatically assist with identifying areas where the learner is weak and suggesting remedial action (see more on educational analytics here).

Reflection

The last learning strategy I want to discuss is reflection. This is a task involved in the retrieval of information and then elaboration on new ideas and concepts. This process adds to the learning process and helps to strengthen skills. One simplified approach to reflection is to answer the following questions when learning new knowledge:

  • What went well? 
  • What could have gone better? 
  • What links can I make to other knowledge and skills?

We can embed this type of reflection in a textbook by ending each chapter or module with a ‘Check Your Progress’ section, asking the above questions and allowing learners to reflect. In an online course, encouraging learners to keep an online journal with instruction given to reflect regularly serves a similar purpose. 

Cognitive science is a new area of interest for me, so please send me any recommendations for texts to read and examples of where research from cognitive science is being used successfully in learning materials development.

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