EEF Blog: The ABC of Cognitive Science

Findings from cognitive science offer great promise to educators. But it is important to recognise the limits of what we know about their application in the classroom, writes EEF head of policy, Robbie Coleman.

I practise Spanish every morning for twenty minutes on the District Line. My app of choice is called Anki, which I am using to try and learn the 5,000 most common words in Spain.

Anki is essentially a digital card sort, which tests you on the English translation of Spanish vocabulary, or vice versa. I like the app, and would recommend it to friends. But is my enthusiasm justified?

Ostensibly, it definitely is. Anki, like several other language learning apps, follows the principles of spaced practice, which have been tested since the 1880s, and constitutes one of the strongest educational insights from cognitive psychology.

Spaced practice holds that that we are more likely to remember something we revisit over time than something we study in one sitting, even if the total time spent studying is the same. Recently, a project involving spaced practice in secondary science – Spaced Learning – was piloted by the EEF. Following encouraging initial results, we have commissioned a randomised controlled trial – SMART Spaces – which is now recruiting schools.

However, the history of education is strewn with plausible or exciting-sounding ideas that did not deliver on their potential. Spaced practice certainly builds on a stronger foundation of evidence than some other more recent trends. But it still feels important to avoid getting carried away.

To avoid doing so, there are three ideas I try to keep in mind:

A) Application matters. 

Regardless of the strength of the underlying theory, how an idea is put into practice will determine its impact on learning.

To get an idea about just how important application is, phonics is a helpful example. The theory behind why phonics should help pupils learn is extremely clear, and the evidence that it can work in practice is extensive. But there are still examples of phonics interventions that fail, and we are still learning more about how to use phonics in certain circumstances, for example when supporting older, struggling readers.

In the case of spaced learning, though many studies have been done, there are there still unanswered questions about application. For example, there are differences in opinion about the length of spaces, and whether they should remain consistent or be gradually extended. Anki lets me choose how quickly cards reoccur, but I honestly don’t know what works best and am aware that these details may affect the impact of the approach.

These are questions we can try to answer with classroom evaluations. A key aim of the EEF studies has been to identify the optimum duration for spaces. The current “best bet” being tested through our SMART Spaces trial combines short spaces within a lesson with longer spaces between lessons. We could also test whether the findings can be applied to different subject areas, and with different aged children.

B) Balance matters. 

There is always an opportunity cost to adopting something new, so combining enthusiasm for novel approaches with a continued commitment to what was already working is important.

For me, balance is an on-going challenge. I find Anki quite addictive, and it's tempting to spend most of the time I have available for practising Spanish on it. However, I know that there is more to Spanish than memorising vocabulary. I’m trying to avoid a situation where what is most easily measurable crowds out other things, such as grammar and practising writing, that are less fun but will make a greater difference in the long run.

Balance is also about types of pedagogy. Anki is enjoyable for about the duration of a tube journey, but beyond this I start to flag. I know that learning a language is also a social process, and value my weekly group lessons a great deal. They provide an opportunity to practise speaking and motivate me to try and keep up with peers. Without this variety, I think I would make less progress.

C) Curriculum matters. 

Without a good curriculum, effective pedagogy is worthless.

A trivial example is that, like many similar apps, Anki has an open source element, where users can create and share sets of cards. Unfortunately, some sets are better than others; eg, one told me that “Hata [sic] manana” meant “See you tomorrow”. If you get a bad deck, or even just one typo, there is a high risk of very securely learning something that is wrong.

Even setting errors aside, there will always be a question about prioritisation. For me, it may be the case that learning the 100 most common verbs would be more valuable than a general list of vocabulary. In any subject, it is important to identify the foundational knowledge that will be most helpful to pupils.

Enthusiasm for spaced practice is growing and justified. Alongside other ideas such as retrieval practice and worked examples, approaches grounded in cognitive science offer practical insights and hold great appeal to teachers and researchers alike. However, turning potential into impact requires patience and care. The ABC suggestions listed above offer a starting point for this work.

Further reading:

  • The EEF’s Improving Secondary Science guidance report, published in September 2018, includes an overview of evidence on memory strategies, including spaced learning, in science.
  • The EEF's Projects pages include details of a range of evaluations related to cognitive science, including the SMART Spaces trials referenced. More EEF trials related to cognitive science are due to be announced soon.
  • Accessible overviews of evidence related to cognitive science are published by the Deans for Impact and The Learning Scientists.

References:

  • Ebbinghaus, H. (1885/1913). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology, (Translated by H. A. Ruger and C. E. Bussenius). New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.
  • Hare, L. O., Stark, P., McGuinness, C., & Biggart, A. (2017). Spaced Learning: The Design, Feasibility and Optimisation of SMART Spaces. Evaluation report and executive summary. Available at the EEF website here: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/spaced-learning/.