Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

E-xcellence in Teaching: Four Simple Strategies from Cognitive Psychology for the Classroom (Part 1)

04 Mar 2017 5:29 PM | Anonymous

Four Simple Strategies from Cognitive Psychology for the Classroom


Megan A. Smith (Rhode Island College)

Christopher R. Madan (Boston College)

Yana Weinstein (University of Massachusetts Lowell)


Scientists focusing on educational research questions have a great deal of information that can be utilized in the classroom. However, there is not often bidirectional communication between researchers and practitioners in the field of education as a whole (see Roediger, 2013). In this article, we describe the science behind four evidence-based teaching strategies: (1) providing visual examples, (2) teaching students to explain and to do, (3) spaced practice, and (4) frequent quizzing. Below, we provide concise overview of these strategies and examples of how they can be implemented in the classroom before describing the science behind each strategy:


1.      Providing visual examples
  • Relevant cognitive concepts: Dual coding
  • Description: Combining pictures with words.
  • Application examples (using social psychology topics):
    • Students can draw examples of factors determining liking or loving. For example, two people who are close vs. far away, two people who are similar vs. different, or a visual depiction of reciprocity
    • Instructors can make sure to provide video depictions of experiments where available to go with verbal descriptions (e.g., Milgram, misattribution of arousal)
2.      Teaching students to explain and do
  • Relevant cognitive concepts: Elaborative interrogation; Levels of processing; Enactment effect
  • Description: Asking and explaining why a factor or concept is true; asking students to perform an action.
  • Application examples (using social psychology topics):
    • Students can ask and explain what factors contribute to whether one person helps another person.
    • Instructors can provide students with example scenarios of a person in need of help and ask students to describe and explain why they think a passerby may or may not help.
3.      Spaced practice
  • Relevant cognitive concepts: Spacing; Interleaving; Distributed practice; Optimal lab
  • Description: Creating a study schedule that spreads study activities out over time.
  • Application examples (using social psychology topics):
    • Students can block off time to study for 30 minutes each day rather than only studying right before a test or exam.
    • Instructors can assign online quizzes that interleave questions from various chapters.
4.      Frequent quizzing
  • Relevant cognitive concepts: Testing effect; Retrieval practice; Retrieval-based learning
  • Description: Bringing learned information to mind from long-term memory.
  • Application examples (using social psychology topics):
    • o   Students can practice writing out everything they know about a topic, for example conformity, obedience, and bystander effects.
    • o   Instructors can give frequent low-stakes quizzes in the classroom or online to encourage retrieval practice.


Instructors can find free teaching materials for each of these strategies on the Learning Scientists website (

We focus on these strategies because they were highlighted in a recent policy report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (Pomerance, Greenberg, & Walsh, 2016), which identified key teaching strategies based on evidence from the science of learning. The report found that few of the 48 teacher-training textbooks they examined cover any of these learning principles well–and that none covered more than two of them (but see Thomas & Goering, 2016). These strategies also reiterate recommendations made in an earlier guide commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education (Pashler, Bain, Bottge, Graesser, Koedinger, McDaniel, & Metcalfe, 2007; also see Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013). Thus, there seems to be a gap between the research – converging evidence from controlled laboratory studies and classroom studies – and practical use of the strategies in education. While there are in-depth reviews on each of these strategies, here we provide a concise, teacher-ready overview of these strategies and how they could be applied in the classroom.


1. Providing visual examples

Learning can be substantially enhanced if verbal information is accompanied by visual examples. This coupling of verbal and visual information is supported by the ‘dual-coding theory’ (Paivio, 1986). This theory attributes the mnemonic benefits of providing visual examples to different cognitive processes associated with processing words and images, or even words that describe concrete ideas. This can be particularly useful when teaching abstract concepts (see Figure 1 for an example,, as associating concrete and abstract terms can improve memory for the abstract information (Madan, Glaholt, & Caplan, 2010).

Additionally, there is clear evidence that memory for pictures is superior to memory for words (Paivio & Csapo, 1969; 1973). However, this effect is fundamentally distinct from the notion of “learning styles”, where information to be learned is presented in a learner’s preferred modality. This type of differentiation is not supported by cognitive research (Rohrer & Pashler, 2012) and has often been described as a myth or urban legend (Coffield, Moseley, Hall, & Ecclestone, 2004; Hattie & Yates, 2014; Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013). Rather than diagnosing each student’s style and matching instruction for each individual, teachers can couple visual examples with text for all students.


2. Teaching students to explain and to do

One of the most effective methods to improve learning of information is to have students engage with the material more ‘deeply’, also known as elaboration (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; also see Lockhart & Craik, 1990). Elaboration has been defined in many ways, but most simply it involves connecting new information to pre-existing knowledge. Perhaps William James said it best: “The art of remembering is the art of thinking [...] our conscious effort should not be so much to impress or retain [knowledge] as to connect it with something already there. The connecting is the thinking; and, if we attend clearly to the connection, the connected thing, will certainly be likely to remain within recall” (James, 1899, p. 143). Two forms of elaboration are readily applicable to classroom learning: having students explain why something is the case, and having students perform actions.

Elaborative processing can be fostered by having students question the material that they are studying; for instance, by asking them to produce their own explanations for why a fact is true, rather than just presenting them with a complete explanation (Pressley, McDaniel, Turnure, Wood, & Ahmad, 1987). This elaboration technique is flexible enough to work in a variety of different learning situations (e.g., for students working alone or in groups, Kahl & Woloshyn, 1994). However, work on elaborative interrogation outside of the lab is just beginning (Smith, Holliday, and Austin, 2010) and we need stronger evidence from the classroom before we can confidently claim that this technique is helpful (Dunlosky et al., 2013). Another relevant technique is that of self-explanation, where students walk themselves through the steps they take during learning. This technique is helpful both when students engage in it spontaneously (Chi, Bassok, Lewis, Reimann, & Glaser, 1989), and also when teachers prompt students to produce the self-explanations (Chi, De Leeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994).

When feasible, the most elaborative way to process information is by ‘doing’. When information could either be learned by hearing about an action, watching someone else do the action, or having the student themselves perform the action, retention was best in cases where the student performed the action themselves (Cohen, 1981; Engelkamp & Cohen, 1991). This action component can build upon the previously described dual-coding theory (Engelkamp & Zimmer, 1984; Madan & Singhal, 2012). In the classroom, this type of learning could be supported by hands-on activities (e.g., science experiments, or getting students to draw their own diagrams; Wammes et al., 2016) or field trips to museums or nature sites.


Read Part II at:

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