Cognitively-sound materials

To get the maximum result out of classroom instruction, it is necessary for teachers to understand the psychological processes that affect how a student learns. In other words, knowledge about the structure and working of human cognition serve as useful guide to enhance teaching and learning.

While utilizing a variety of creative and engaging teaching strategies go a long way to stimulate active learning, the materials presented to students play an equally significant role in how students acquire, process and assimilate knowledge. Engaging students in active learning without using appropriate, cognitively-sound materials is like successfully dribbling the ball up to the goalpost and not scoring a goal.

Research in cognitive psychology state that it is the interaction between the properties of materials taught and the manner in which they are delivered to students that determines the outcome of teaching and learning. This explains why textbook publishers go all the way out to make learning materials more interactive, colorful and approachable for students. While these are helpful, there are additional properties that determine successful learning. This is true particularly in the context of the level of complexity of learning materials under consideration.

Whether the materials to be learned are easy or difficult, learning is possible when the following are kept in mind.

Break it down

Breaking knowledge into reasonably smaller chunks enables effective processing of information in the working memory. Various research indicate that the working memory, where real-time mental activities take place, is very limited in capacity and duration. Only a limited bit of data is held in the working memory at any given time. As such, it is highly recommended that teachers present one idea at a time. This could be accomplished by presenting an idea and reinforcing the same with explanation, examples and further discussing about it.

When a teacher dwells in a particular idea for a longer period of time, the student would have had the opportunity to sufficiently interact with, make sense of, and eventually commit that piece of information to the long-term memory. Since the working memory is the first cognitive structure that is involved in learning, a sudden flooding of information will not help in the eventual acquisition of knowledge.

Most students get frustrated in the classroom when they are not given the opportunity to actively process each bit of information presented, before moving on to the next.

Connect it

Information that is successfully processed through the working memory is held in the long term memory. Paradoxically, the long term memory is immeasurably large with no known limits. Research by psychologist Adriaan Dingeman de Groot in the 1940’s indicate that the major difference between expert and novice chess players was not superior search moves or larger working memories. Instead, expert chess players possess enormous store of real game configurations in their long term memories. While playing, they draw out from a huge bank of stored board configurations and are aware of the best moves associated with each particular configuration.

Other psychologists investigating a wide range of problem solving areas also recognize that the long term memory plays a crucial role in higher order thinking and learning in general.

Teachers should activate and leverage on the long term memory by connecting what was already learned with what is to be learned. Regularly reviewing past lessons, connecting past lessons to each other, and building new knowledge upon existing understanding enhance the working of long term memory.


Both breaking down knowledge and connecting it with previous learning could be effectively done on a day-to-day basis through the use of tools such as advanced organizers, concept maps, mind maps and regularly-scheduled-short review quizzes/exercises that are fun and not graded.

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