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.


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). 

Read moreUsing the latest research in cognitive science to develop learning materials

June Newsletter: This is what I’ve been up to …

I hope everyone is surviving 2020, which I’m sure we’ll all agree is starting to feel a lot like the manifestation of the Chinese curse ‘May you live in interesting times’! 

However, it is not all doom and gloom. In-between the coronavirus chaos, I’ve learnt a lot about how best to work remotely, what productivity looks like when you are not chained to a desk, and who the best online grocer in Cape Town is.

South Africa has (so far) been spared the worst of the pandemic. Our schools were, however, shut for two months. I’ve worked on a project to make support packs available for grade 12 learners, so they can still pass their end of year exams. We kept the file-size small and gave them permission to WhatsApp the material to their classmates. I’m also currently working on a series of worksheets and teachers’ resources for schools in Africa, providing training on the coronavirus, how it spreads, prevention methods, stigma and mental health—coming soon!

In Cameroon, I published a book for English-language learning in Francophone schools. The education ministry liked it so much they selected it as the one and only book students could use. Take a look at some pages on my blog. You’ll be able to get an e-book edition pre-loaded to an Android tablet (along with some other books) later this year. Still on supporting language learning, I developed a set of (fun!), off-line, digital resources to teach isiXhosa to primary school learners. I made a short product video, which is on my blog.

Speaking of blogs, I am back up and blogging regularly. For any publishing types, I wrote out my thoughts on a modern book publishing workflow. Electric Book Works has produced an excellent infographic (unrelated to my blogging) which illustrates this workflow and Pressbooks have a platform where you can put this workflow into practice. 

As we bravely move into the world of digital work (accelerated due to the coronavirus), I put together some ideas on skills that may be needed and how to teach them in the classroom.

Lastly, for teachers and learning professionals, I wrote a short guide on how to use Bloom’s Taxonomy, the classic educational framework, in a digital environment. It’s free on Amazon for a week – please download it and let me know what is missing or what can be improved on by completing  this form.

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What is single-source publishing?

In an earlier series of blog posts, I outlined the process we follow when making a book at Cambridge. This process is a traditional book publishing workflow. It has people responsible for discrete tasks and linear process. The author produces the manuscript which the editor then edits and styles and passes onto the typesetter who lays the book out. The proofreader gives the book a once over, and then it is ready to print. If an e-book is needed, then a whole new process starts, with the PDF marked up for conversion to an epub. An external service provider typically completes this task. If we need to implement changes or reprint corrections to the title, then these changes must go back to the editor and then the typesetter. We must then implement these changes in the e-book version. This workflow is costly and time-consuming.

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Interacting with English … in the Cameroon

The good news: I’ve just published an English-language textbook that the education ministry in Cameroon has selected to use in all schools in the country.

The bad news: coronavirus cancelled my trip to the Cameroon.

Let’s stick with the good news and discuss the book. Interactions in English 1ere is an English course for French-speaking students developed by an experienced team of Cameroonian and South Africa educationalists. The communicative approach, which structures the curriculum, is successfully integrated with the tried and tested methods of traditional language teaching. All skills required in the curriculum are covered at an appropriate language level and with content relevant to the student. The book has several exercises in each module with additional activities to help improve student results. We included a useful list of irregular verbs and (bilingual) word lists at the end of the book. 

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Yizani – resources for teaching isiXhosa as an additional language

The Incremental Implementation of African Languages (IIAL) is a programme by South Africa’s Department of Basic Education to introduce the learning of an African language as a second or third language for pupils at schools. This programme will start learning-language in grade 1 and then follow it through to the end of schooling in grade 12 – that’s where the incremental implementation part comes in. While a laudable initiative, there are not enough trained African languages teachers in schools currently. The public broadcaster SABC has attempted to assist with a terrifying puppet-show series, but it fails to provide adequate support to teachers and guidance on how to structure a lesson. With Yizani, we’ve attempted to bridge this gap.

Read moreYizani – resources for teaching isiXhosa as an additional language