EEF Blog: What does research say about the application of cognitive science approaches in the classroom?

The EEF is commissioning a systematic review of the evidence about the application of cognitive science in the classroom. In this blog, our head of policy, Robbie Coleman, outlines its purpose and how we hope it will help inform teachers' practice...

Shortly after winning the Nobel Prize for their work on poverty reduction, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee wrote an article that explored why the public don’t trust economists. As well as highlighting the danger of economists being “too wrapped up in methods and models” to connect with the public, they criticised economic commentators on the news who offered policy prescriptions and bold predictions on demand.

While the commentators’ claims might have be eye-catching, Duflo and Banerjee noted, they were often wrong, with corrosive effects on the reputation of the whole discipline. Instead, they argued for a more deliberate approach. To regain trust, “good economics” must move forward on the basis of “a combination of intuition and theory, trial and acknowledged errors.” 

Taking care doesn’t mean moving slowly. Indeed, Duflo and Banerjee helped create the J-PAL network, which has set up nearly 1,000 poverty reduction projects worldwide since 2013. But it does mean moving carefully, for example using randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to test promising theories in practice in different contexts.

Duflo and Banerjee’s account offers two important lessons for advocates of evidence-informed education.

First: don’t overclaim. 

The number of teachers engaging with, and participating in, research has dramatically increased in recent years. This year alone, tens of thousands of teachers have downloaded an EEF guidance report or attended a course led by one of our Research Schools. Incredibly, over half of the schools in England have now participated in an EEF trial. 

But this enthusiasm must be met with integrity and respect. Just as Duflo and Banerjee found that all economists were tainted by talking heads overclaiming in the media, so too could research lose its credibility if it is reduced to silver bullets.

Get Involved

Get Involved

More than 14,000 schools, as well as early years and post-16 settings, have signed up to be involved in one of the EEF's trials. 12 EEF-funded projects are now looking for volunteers to test the impact of their work.

Register your interest here.

Second: don’t take short cuts.

Last week, EEF senior associate, Prof. Rob Coe, reflected on the evidence base supporting retrieval practice. In doing so, he drew a helpful distinction between evidence supporting the idea that retrieval practice can aid learning – of which there is a great deal – and evidence that teachers can straightforwardly introduce retrieval practice in the classroom.

For the latter, Rob identified a gap. While there are school-based studies of retrieval practice, they almost always use questions written by researchers, which are often identical to the final test.

The absence of this evidence does not mean (as Rob pointed out) that retrieval practice will not work. It is possible that incorporating retrieval practice into lessons will be relatively straightforward for many teachers. Indeed, Rob and colleagues at the EEF are testing an approach to using quizzing at the start of lessons through the EEF’s new Teacher Choices stream of work.

The crucial point is that the step from promising theory to impact in practice is rarely trivial. 

In 2014, the EEF and the Wellcome Trust committed £6 million to trialling projects informed by neuroscience, for example related to spaced learning. Every project had evidence of promise from lab studies. But, when they were taken to the classroom, several failed to convert this promise into an impact on learning.

To ensure that the EEF’s work and recommendations on cognitive science are based on the strongest evidence possible, incorporating findings from studies we fund in England and the best research overseas, we are now commissioning a systematic review into the evidence on common teaching approaches that are based on cognitive science – for example, retrieval practice or interleaving. 

This new review will focus on what the research says about the application of these approaches in the classroom. It will provide an invaluable foundation for new work, including advice for teachers, EEF guidance reports and strands in our Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

Researchers interested in undertaking this review should click here to find out more.