Cognitive Science in the Real World: How A Few Simple Changes Dramatically Improve Learning

April 30th, 2014 No Comments Other


Over the past year we’ve written a lot about applying principles of cognitive science in education; from frequent testing and feedback to spaced learning, active learning and even video game training.

But while many of these ideas may look great in theory, putting them into practice can still be tricky if you don’t know where to start.

Recently, researchers from Rice and Duke University pooled their resources to demonstrate just how easy and inexpensive it can be to enhance teaching and learning by combining technology with a few tried-and-proven cognitive strategies.

Throughout the study, the researchers had students alternate between two different homework styles for a few weeks.

For one week, they would do their homework in the regular way; completing one assignment per week, which was then turned in, graded and returned a week later.

The following week, the researchers incorporated three cognitive principles that are known to promote learning and improve long-term retention, namely spaced learning; repeated retrieval practice; and immediate feedback.

This homework method was dubbed the “intervention.”

“Making some small changes to how you assign homework can significantly increase learning outcomes,” says Richard G. Baraniuk, Rice University professor and one of the lead researchers.

“Fortunately these small changes are very easy to make,” he adds.

“Our research platform, OpenStax Tutor, is a lightweight computer-based homework system that enables instructors to build into their homework assignments three important and proven principles from cognitive science.”

The three cognitive science principles were put to use in the following ways:

  • Repeated retrieval practice: Along with their usual homework assignment, students received follow-up problems on the same topic in two additional assignments that counted only toward their participation grade.
  • Spaced learning: Instead of giving students an entire week’s problem sets all at once, the researchers spaced them out over three weeks of assignments.
  • Immediate feedback: Students were given immediate feedback on their intervention homework, rather than having to wait a whole week to hear how they had done. To ensure that students benefitted from it, they were required to view it in order to get credit for their assignments.

When they were tested later on the material they had been taught through both methods, students scored 7% higher on the portions they had learned with the intervention.

Although this particular experiment focused on homework, the researchers surmise that it would be fairly easy to incorporate similar practices into any type of learning program, whether online or in class.

“We aimed for changes that could easily be applied across disciplines and grade levels with minimal cost and disruption,” noted one of the study’s co-authors Elizabeth Marsh.

“Giving students multiple opportunities to practice retrieving and applying their knowledge on new problems is a very powerful way to promote learning, especially when this practice is spaced out over time,” said Marsh.

She points out that feedback is also critical to learning, but with previous studies showing that students will often skip looking at feedback; it can make more sense to build feedback into each assignment as a mandatory exercise that students must complete before moving on.

Learn more about learning strategies with our interactive 3D brain.


Marianne Stenger is a freelance journalist with over four years of experience in writing for publications, online resources and blogs in the education industry. She believes that online education is the way of the future and is passionate about promoting online learning tools and the use of new technologies in the classroom.

You can find her on Google+ , twitter and by email at marianne.stenger @

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