A brief introduction to cognitive science

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Cognitive science is the study of the human mind. It is difficult to study and teach, and because it doesn’t have fixed laws like Newton’s Laws of Motion, is open to interpretation. But there are principles that can be utilised to design more rewarding educational experiences for young people in schools 

(Bermúdez, 2010).

To utilise our understanding of cognitive science to inform our teaching, we have to have an understanding of the following concepts (Caviglioli, 2019):

1. Perception

2. Attention

3. Working Memory (WM)

4. Long Term Memory (LTM)

5. Schema.

This article provides a very brief overview of each of these.

Perception — We interpret stimuli in different ways often based upon our prior experiences. This sometimes means that the message sent is not always the message received, which is why checking understanding is such an important tool of the teacher.

Attention — This has been described as the ‘Holy Grail for teachers’ (Beard, 2017). It is a limited resource that directs and maintains focus on a specific point. With multiple stimuli it is difficult to know where to focus students’ attention. A lecture or lesson with poorly designed PowerPoint can quickly cause cognitive overload and hinder learning.

Working memory — This is described as the site of consciousness where we process information in the moment. This processing is a very cognitive intensive process, hence we can typically hold only small amounts of information in it. To compensate for the limitation in WM, we have evolved to use the long term memory.

Long term memory —This is a theoretically infinite site of storage. This storage requires four stages called:

I) Encoding

II) Consolidation

III) Storage

IV) Retrieval

(see Weinstein, 2019).

The LTM organises information into neuronal patterns. These are called ‘schema’. A novice learner typically has a poorly organised schema and therefore the load on the working memory (WM) is typically high early on in the learning process. But as the learner continues to bring relevant information to mind, the schema starts to organise itself. As a schema develops and a learner is exposed to the same information again, the WM is able to access this information and reduce the load on the WM. An expert is thought to have more highly organised schema than a novice and gains a certain level of fluency. A good teacher will support learners to organise schema in a useful way.

Implications for trainee teachers and teacher educators

Perception — Find out what students know already because new learning builds on this.

Attention — This is a limited resource. Reduce the amount of stimuli that students have to process. For example, reduce information on PowerPoint slides and avoid having too many words, images and speaking at the same time.

WM — This is also a limited resource. It has a limited capacity and information is usually only stored in there briefly. Distraction can empty it and different people have different WM capacities. Gathercole and Alloway (2007) refer to WM failures when poor instruction has overwhelmed WM (you might recognise students that you have taught that struggle to retain instructions).

schema is a metaphor for how knowledge (skills being a subset of knowledge) is organised. When a subject is covered students often forget. This forgetting can be used to our advantage in what Bjork (1996) calls ‘desirable difficulties’. Students partially forgetting and then being asked to bring that information back to into mind at a later interval can strengthen the schema formation.

Cognitive Load Theory (1988), postulated by John Sweller in the late 1980s, aims to improve teacher instructional design by taking into account the characteristics of WM and LTM. By improving instructional design it is possible to optimise the load on the WM so that learning experiences are not hampered by overwhelming the WM. So taking into account the complexity of the content, the experience of the learner, how the presenter delivers the information and the design of the task can reduce the demand on the WM and improve the learning experience.


Caviglioli O (2019) Memory and Meaning PowerPoint. https://www.olicav.com/#/powerpoints/ (accessed 1 July 2019).

Bermúdez JL (2010) Cognitive Science: An Introduction to the Science of the Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Beard A (2017) Natural Born Learners. Our Incredible Capacity to Learn and How We Can Harness it. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Weinstein Y, Sumeracki M and Caviglioli O (2019) Understanding How We Learn. Oxford: Routledge.

Gathercole S and Alloway T (2007) Understanding Working Memory. A Classroom Guide. Available at: https://www.mrc- cbu.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/WM-classroom-guide.pdf (accessed 2 July 2019).

Bjork EL and Bjork RA (1996) Memory. Handbook of Perception and Cognition. San Diego: Academic Press.

Sweller J (1988) Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science 12: 257-285.

Further reading

The Learning Scientists (http://www.learningscientists.org/)

Brown P, Roediger H and McDaniel M (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA, US: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Colvin Clark R (2008) Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement (3rd ed). USA: John Wiley & Sons.

About the author

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. A
    Abul Kalam Aziz

    This is the clearest I’ve seen cognitive science explained in the form of an introduction, I’ve heard Oli Caviglioli speak at an event and it has been transformational in the way I view learning. It’s great to see it summarised so well here. Looking forward to reading the following sections

  2. A
    Angela Murphy

    I agree with your comments Abul. We had Oliver C as a visiting speaker this year. This article would have been a wonderful taster and introduction to set the scene the week before he came to visit us. A clear explanation.

  3. M
    Mr David Paul Smith

    A great introductory article which is easy to follow and digest and use as a springboard to build upon.

  4. M
    Mrs Sally Ann Wilcher

    This takes me back to university and learning about cognitive development, something I have used in CPD over the years.

  5. S
    Sakira Arthur

    Really concise and clear summary of cognitive science. As a trainee teacher, I liked how it highlighted elements that I should be aware of when I teach, and it is something I will bear in mind when planning lessons. Thankyou.

  6. M
    Mr Rupert Ibbotson

    A fantastic summary of cognitive science that has made concepts that have intially appeared complex and daunting digestible and understandable. Like Sakira, I liked that it highlighted the elements I should be aware of whilst teaching, as it means I can thoughtfully consider how to implement it into a learning environment.

  7. L
    Luke Mazingham

    I was able to make some great reflective notes from this article, and what we as trainee teacher should be implicating. Thankyou.

  8. G
    Gina Plimley Gadd

    This was a succinct and easily-digestible overview of cognitive science that tied together what we covered in greater detail in Helen’s training video last week. THis also provides a real-life example of how LTSA is using cognitive science to benefit our training – reading this artcle at this stage helps us as trainees form and solidify our own schema by feeding these fundamentals through at regular intervals so we can store them in LTM and focus on developing further!

  9. M
    Michelle Coles

    As a student teacher, I find learning about cognitive science fascinating and exciting. Thank you for such a clear and concise introduction into something I look forward to learning more about.

  10. A
    Abigail Cox

    I really appreciate this article as it explains cognitive science in a way that is incredibly useful as a trainee teacher. I’d like to retain this information as an almost step-by-step in ensuring that I get the most out of my classes. Thank you.

  11. D
    Declan Hill

    This is a great list of things that I should be considering with my classes and, especially, with myself.

  12. G
    Gemma Goulding

    A great explanation of cognitive science with extremely useful points for the classroom!

  13. L
    Lydia Marsh

    A really clear and succinct summary of cognitive science, which has been really useful at reinforcing some key ideas to bear in mind when planning lessons

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