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How cognitive sciences changed the way I teach: The 4-step learning process

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Alike many EdTech supporters, my interest in educational technology came from teaching. My interest in education, in general, came from teaching. And I came into teaching by accident.  With no prior experience, I got hired on the spot for a high-school teacher position that started in a half-week.  I hadn’t even thought of the possibility of teaching at that moment, but I was now a hired English & Psychology teacher. I was worried and scared. I had hotly accepted a job offer for doing something I have never done before. I thought I was starting at the wrong end of the procedure: first I teach, then I learn. But, as I acquired experience and researched deeply into education, into how we memorize and retrieve information, and learn; I learned that I could not have gotten a better start, and that teaching can only be learned through teaching.

I say I could not have gotten a better start because, with no idea on what I was doing, after my first weeks of attempting to teach, I laid down my most immediate questions and then others that where conceptually broader and would take more time to tackle: but all these questions derived from one main inquiry: how do we learn? I had some very distant and inaccurate memory from my first years into psychology major, when I had several lessons on human development and the process of learning, but I had nothing more. It seems improbable that after going to school basically during all my memorable life, after learning many things in and out of school, I had very rarely questioned myself about the intricate process of learning. So I now faced a giant question: how do we learn? The answer came from a field brother to psychology: cognitive science.

I blame my background on psychology for my fast adoption of the theories and ideas that fuel cognitive science. But I soon found out that answering my question was not an easy task. Cognitive science as any other discipline, sometimes offers more than one answer, and not all of them are complimentary.  Further reading and teaching experience helped me select, clean and experiment with the new ideas I was discovering. I was learning to teach as I was teaching. And as a result, my abilities, assigned courses and evaluation scores improved each period. I quickly became one of the best evaluated teachers in high school. As I got better at teaching, I also came to have a better understanding of the learning process. At least in broad, practical terms. At least the part teachers need to know. My teaching methods and ideas changed semester to semester, experiment class upon another. This was the period I enjoyed the most as a teacher, and it was when I discovered I had a passion for education.

So, what can I say about the learning process? And, how is this knowledge useful from a teacher’s perspective? In the next paragraphs I will try to briefly describe some of the most important ideas that I learned while researching on cognitive sciences, and how these ideas had an impact on changing the way I teach.

The learning process, although much more complex, can be summarized into four broad cognitive processes: attention, attachment, storage and retrieval. It works as a cycle. Everything that is retrieved is being learned and reviewed. Teaching can rarely have implication in most of the storage cognitive process (which will be explained later) but it is deeply involved with the other three steps. Any good class should be designed taking this process into account. And every good teacher will use this knowledge to help plan activities and tools for learning.

The first and main ingredient in the formula is attention. Attention can be described as the cognitive process of choosing the information or stimuli that our brain will process. Everything that is not the focus of attention, is ignored. In a sense, attention is an election. For teachers, this means students will only be able to learn what they choose to learn. It means that if the class is dull and the students’ attention is being directed elsewhere, the class serves absolutely no purpose, and is wasting everybody’s time. Getting the students’ attention has been the headache of almost every teacher. For many years, strictness and severity where tools used to try to direct attention towards class. But this new knowledge on how attention works tells us we should have been dealing with the problem the other way around. It has proven to be much more effective to make the course interesting in its content and delivery. This is why videogames have become a hyped pedagogical tool: it stimulates many senses as it creates an experience which immerses the user/learner. (?)

The second cognitive process that help us understand how we learn is attachment, also known as encoding. In order to truly understand a piece of information, we have to attach it to a prior knowledge. Paying attention determines what can be learned, but it’s the mouth of the process. What goes in, gets digested, but that doesn’t mean that everything that goes in is used efficiently. Once our brain interprets and analyzes the information that is the focus of attention, it has to categorize it. It has to connect it to knowledge that it is inside. This makes the piece of information valuable and relatable. When there are no proper or enough connections of knowledge about a topic, it is unfeasible to understand it. This is why a 1st year undergraduate physics student can have a hard time understanding quantum or string theory. The base theory that supports this more complex information is what makes it valuable and interpretable. For an elementary student, a quantum theory book is nothing more than a group of hard-to-spell words and interesting graphics, but the child cannot learn from it. Even if he can read it and understand most words, he cannot derive meaning from it. This is not a new idea. This is the governing thought behind delivering education through an ordered process of refining and adding information to previous bodies of knowledge. What is new, what is now making a difference…

The third step on the process is storage. Storage refers to memory. Working memory and long term memory. While we are paying attention, our working memory is holding that piece of information that is being used during any activity at any point. When someone is reading, every piece of information that is needed to give sense to the text, to find the value and understand its meaning is passed to the working memory. Elements on the working memory cannot last more than a few minutes. However, the long-term memory can last a lifetime. Everything we know about everything is englobed within long-term memory. For something to be considered learned, it must be stored in the long-term memory. Thus, the transference of information from the working memory to long-term memory has been subject of diverse and arduous research. A lot of it points to one direction: sleep. Adding to the widely-accepted idea that good sleep is an essential habit for being healthy, many studies have pointed to this activity as the main factor that enables this migration of information. This is because, whenever we are exposed to new stimuli, whenever we are facing new information, our brain makes the new neural synapses required to assimilate it. While in deep slumber, the brain rehearses these new neural connections made throughout the day, and helps them to be activated more quickly and easily. This easiness of calling a specific path of neural connections in order to understand an idea is what takes the instantaneous to the eternal.

Of course, teachers cannot interfere with their students’ sleep cycles. But the principle that repetition and constant exposure leads to information being transferred to long-term memory is useful for planning courses. Every new topic or refinement of topic that is seen in the classroom should be repeated several times during the whole course. I personally recommend each topic to be repeated at least two more times after the initial exposure. Each new revision increasingly spaced. This allows students not only to rehearse the neural connection, but to interpret it differently if new related information has been stored. The more connections the new piece of information can make with stored memory, the better its chances of being adopted to the latter.

Finally, we find retrieval. Many articles and studies point to the underrated importance teachers seem to allocate to this cognitive process. Retrieval can be defined as the action of using information. Once our information has been selected, interpreted, attached to prior experience and stored in long term memory, it is necessary to bring this information back to the working memory and use it to produce something: a presentation, a conference, a joke, a discussion, a piece of art. Anything can work as long as you are actively using the piece of information. The importance of the retrieval process is not only that it is the final step, but it is what transforms this process into a cycle. Retrieval is the closing element. When we engage in retrieval, we are bringing the information to the main stage, it is being again the subject of our attention, it will be re-interpreted and re-attached to prior experience and knowledge, and finally, it will make new connections with the stored long-term memory, making the information better to remember and understand in the future. Smart-planned retrieval classes should be integrated within any course. It is as important as attention, and it is the only step in the process (beside attention) where the learner is consciously active towards the learning material.


Of course, in my immersion into Cognitive Science I found a lot of useful knowledge for my professional development. But, the learning process summarizes most of what I learned. Attention, Attachment, Storage and Retrieval. It is not a process I invented or discovered, but most of what I read could fit into this model. Many of the bestseller cognitive-science books can be arranged in one of these four big topics. I found this model and it helped me plan and design my classes, it helped me know what attitude I should adopt towards difficult students, how and when to catch their attention or what type of tasks and activities should I assign. It proved to be so helpful, that I would recommend any teacher to have basic knowledge on Cognitive Science and how the learning process works. Teachers’ roles are changing as pedagogy grows as a field of study and research, but one thing still remains the same: every great mind to walk this earth, had also a great teacher.

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Edgar Ornelas

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