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). 

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How to publish a book: Developing

I’m a publisher at Cambridge University Press and I’ve written a blog post on the traditional process of publishing a book. I’ve split this blog post into three parts – planning, designing and developing. This is part three.

Developing a book

Once the planning and designing phases are complete, we then move on to actually developing the book – writing, editing and layout. Depending on the amount of work spent on the earlier phases, this could be a relatively straightforward process.

Authoring

After developing a detailed book-plan and, if needed, a writing template it’s now over to the author to work their magic and write a manuscript. Note – if this is a creative work, such as a novel or collection of poems, then the manuscript is the first thing that gets written, particularly in the case of self-publishers. 

There are many books and blog posts written about the craft of writing (and I may add my two cents on the matter in another blog post), but the main thing to be aware of, particularly when writing educational material, is try to track the number of agreed pages as closely as possible. It’s a difficult task for an editor to trim content while keeping meaning. The second issue, and perhaps more difficult to get right, is to ensure you write at the language of the learner. A primary school reader will have a very different grasp of the English language to a working professional. The author must be aware of word usage and line length and pitch their writing to the correct level. This is something an editor can assist with fixing but it much easier to get this correctly done during the writing process. 

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How to publish a book: Designing

I’m a publisher at Cambridge University Press and I’ve written a blog post on the traditional process of publishing a book. I’ve split this blog post into three parts – planning, designing and developing. This is part two.

Designing a book

There are books devoted to book design, and I’m not about to write another. Also, as a non-designer, this short introduction to designing a book is very un-designery with a focus more on product design. 

Now that’s out the way, let’s look at how we use a book design, or design spec as we call it in the publishing industry, and at what point it feeds into the book publishing process. The spec provides all the information needed on the final layout of the book – the colours used, the font sizes, the font type, paragraph styles and character styles. The publisher would generally provide a detailed brief to the designer on the intended target market for the book, suggestions on colour and font use, and all components needed in the book. The spec is also where the publisher develops out all the book’s features. For example, if you need an activity box, a table showing currency or some way to display dialogue or poetry, this is all designed as part of the spec. It is good to be as specific as possible with these components as it is a hassle to go back to a designer for a new feature once the spec design process is over. I’ll go into the details around textbook components in another post but see sample styles for various features in the gallery below. This type of detail is less relevant for novel publishing as opposed to publishing educational or children’s books.

There are three primary audiences for a design spec – the publishing team (publisher, author and editor), the typesetter and then finally the reader. 

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How to publish a book: Planning

I’m a publisher at Cambridge University Press. As the oldest publishing house in the world (in operation since 1534), Cambridge knows how to make a book. And a lot of people want to write and publish a book. I often get asked about the steps involved, so here goes. The process remains roughly the same if you are publishing a bible, a textbook or a poetry collection, but I will use examples from educational book publishing. This would be considered a traditional publishing process. Even if you are self-publishing your work, you’d generally need to complete the same steps, although with the help of online services some of these tasks can be automated or consolidated.

I’ve split this blog post into three parts – planning, designing and developing.

Planning a book

The more work you do upfront in planning your book, the easier the process is later down the line. One of the first decisions that get made is around the format, presentation and the number of pages. Most people know paper sizes based around the pages of the office printer, the standard A4 (doubling to A3 and halving to A5) or US-letter. There are, however, a lot of other options such as truncated A4 and Narrow Crown, which we use in publishing. The decision on paper size (or trim size in publishing parlance) directly relates to printing costs. Specific formats can be printed more efficiently and more economically. At the same time, the type of book you are publishing influences the size of the page. Think about a textbook and its diagrams and boxes in the margin vs a book of poems – different paper sizes for various purposes. There is a whole lot more that goes into printing, but from a publisher’s point of view, you need to know what size you are developing a book for as this affects how much space per page you have for content.

The second choice to be made is around the presentation of your book. Whether your book is black and white or in colour and what it will look like to the reader. Again this has cost-implications for printing your book. But this decision is led by the purpose of your book. Think again about the textbook and the poetry collection and which type of book would benefit from full-colour. While you may not have a design for your book yet, you should be able to estimate the font-size and font-type based on your target audience. For example, a reading book for a primary school learner will have a much larger font in comparison to a training manual for a professional in the workplace. Decisions around presentation will directly influence your estimated number of pages.

Lastly, decide how many pages you want your book to be. Publishers, so fond of acronyms and jargon, call this the extent of the book. Generally, we try to get this number as close as possible to 16-page sections, i.e. divide your total extent by 16, and if you get a whole number, you are good to go. This is the most economical way to print a book due to the size of the paper used by commercial printers. I’ll write more on this at a later point, and also touch on paper weight, binding, printable extents and other intricacies of commercial printing. If your book is only going to be available digitally then this doesn’t concern you – full-colour and reflowable to screen size will be standard for most e-books.

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