Cognitive Science

Dollar Academy's Head of Chemistry, David Lumsden explains his experience of Cognitive Science through his recent CPD session.

I like answers. I like knowing that what someone is telling me is backed-up with hard, scientific evidence. And I like trying to get the very best out of my pupils. For these reasons, I have decided that I like Cognitive Science, even though this time last year I knew nothing about it. Selecting this strand as my CPD focus for the session was a bit of a stab in the dark – there seemed to be a bit of a buzz about it – perhaps I should jump on the bandwagon? So, with 18 colleagues from school, I jumped on the coach to Dundee to meet Dr Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel and two of her 4th Year students, Ailish and Rachel.

I had already heard Carolina speak back in September when Dollar Academy hosted the ResearchED conference, and with my Higher Chemistry class, I had already trialled, with eye-opening results, a retrieval practice technique which she had suggested, so I was keen to delve deeper and learn more. At our seminar in Dundee, she chose to focus on the clear scientific evidence underpinning three of the Six Strategies for Effective Learning (watch The Learning Scientists 8 minute video for an overview – and show it to your pupils too – they will all take something from it).

The first method, distributed (or spaced) practice, has been shown in studies over many years in many areas of education to be far more effective for long term retention than cramming – “if all you want to do is pass the test, then cramming will work for you, but if you want to pass and retain the knowledge, then don’t cram, space”. Basically, instead of pupils toiling for four hours the night before a test, the same time is much more effectively spent in four separate hours spaced out over a number of days. Pupils find this hard to do, however, and they will need help and encouragement to plan to do so. As an aside, Carolina mentioned a couple of time-management techniques, and one really caught me, The Pomodoro Technique – look it up – it is really simple. Having read a little more about it, I am now advocating it to my certificate classes (and my own children), and I have recently taken delivery of my very own bright red ticking timer!

Next up was Retrieval Practice. The evidence, and the subsequent advice, again was clear. Repeated reading of a text gives a false sense of learning. Reading, then writing, is better. Way better. And flashcards are good. The bigger the pile the better, apparently. And don’t waste time doing them solo – they are always better with a friend, or a family member if you are stuck! Our final focus strategy was Dual Coding – everybody learns better when words are alongside pictures, but interestingly, static pictures perform better than animations and videos. We should also encourage our pupils to draw pictures in revision and as a means to answer questions.

Bringing it all together at the end of a busy day, Carolina told us to make a pledge: to challenge our pupils to adopt new methods, and to ditch their comfortable old habits. Effective strategies are long term, but they are no quick fix. If it feels hard, then it is working. Paraphrasing the great Bill McLaren, a local friend of mine claims that “a day out of Dollar is a day wasted”. Well, this one wasn’t.