Be Research Informed!

My last post explored some of the strategies that are employed within FE and Skills that lack an evidence base. This post aims to highlight some strategies that are supported by both in through cognitive psychology experiments and wider research.

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Prior to going any further with this, I’d like to thank Gary Jones for bringing to my attention that what I am writing about is not ‘evidenced based practice’, rather I am informing you of some of the research which you may use alongside your professional experience and context to conduct your own evidence based practice. There’s a whole article explaining the difference here, which you should look at (after reading this post of course). Simply, this post provides an overview of some of the strategies that you should consider in your practice.


Example 1: Spaced practice – How many of the study programmes in your institution are taught in blocks? (e.g Unit 1 for the first 10 weeks, then Unit 2 for the next and so on)

This may seem like a good idea on the face of it to ensure that progress can be measured and those ‘wonderful’ SMART targets can be kept up to date. You may also intuitively think that if learners are only concentrating on one or two topics as opposed to many, that they won’t become confused. However, this method negates long term retention, with spacing practice showing time and time again to have a greater impact on learning than massed practice (HattieDunlosky et al; Cepeda et al; Pashler et al).

What does this mean to you?

  • Learning may be planned ‘long and thin’ over an academic year, with optimal spacing between revisiting the same topic being around  2030 days* (though this is not an exact science and specific time cannot be provided)


Example 2: Testing – Who tests their learners regularly with a low-stakes quiz? (Can’t say I see many do this)

Don’t just stick them in a computer room to work on their assignments, or do ‘self-study’, try testing them more. Through testing, the learners are practising the ability to not only recall and retrieve information, but also clarify any misconceptions and/or reaffirm what they know (Roediger and KarpickeDunlosky et al; Pashler et al).

What does this mean to you?

  • Consider planning in a low-stakes test every lesson through using different methods (peer to peer quiz, multiple choice questions, written form etc). 


Example 3: Visual and verbal explanations – Are your explanations supplemented with visual aid? (this is nothing to do with catering for different ‘learning styles’)

Due to the fact that we can only process a small amount of information in our ‘working memory’ (the here and now), when too much information is provided to learners at one time, it can cause an ‘overload’. Research has demonstrated a decrease in this when verbal information is supplemented with a visual e.g. a graph showing what is being discussed, as learners can construct connections between the words and visual. The diagram must be clear to understand however and should not distract from the information being delivered, otherwise it can impede learning (Pashler et al; Chandler and Sweller; Mayer et al).

What does this mean to you?

  • When delivering new information to learners, consider supplementing verbal explanations with a visuals e.g. graphs, charts, processes, flow diagrams, images.  
  • Try not to confuse learners with the visual being used however. It is advised that simple diagrams be used in the first instance, rather than complex ones (e.g. the cardiovascular system – don’t show actual images of the heart). 


Example 4: Feedback – Do your learners acquire much feedback in lessons? (It doesn’t always have to be down to you as the teacher)

Feedback is often cited as showing excellent improvement in learner progress. However, there have been many studies that have shown negative effects of feedback. The key to successful feedback is to ensure that it is specific and accurate with clear guidance on how to improve. It should also be focussed on the task, not the person concerned (Hattie and Timperley; Education Endowment Foundation; Kluger and DeNisi).

What does this mean to you?

  • Try to ensure that your learners are able to answer the following questions when getting feedback, whether it be from you, their peers, or themselves. 1. Where am I going? (i.e. what is the goal?). 2. How am I going? (i.e. what progress have I made towards this?). 3. Where to next? (What do I need to do to improve?)
  • Consider  making  feedback regular and timely. For example, it is not going to benefit your learners as much if they only get feedback at the end of a lesson as opposed to throughout a lesson. 
  • Feedback alone is not enough, so try to ensure that the ‘loop is closed’ and that learners are given the opportunity to act upon it. 


There are many more things to consider in your lessons, but there is overwhelming support from both cognitive psychology experiments and wider research to support the above mentioned. Perhaps this post will support you in stage 2,3 and 4 of your own ‘evidence-based practice’ (cited in Gary Jones’ article).


*Update. Thanks to @AceThatTest for this lovely visual to supplement my written explanation following a recommendation by Oliver Cavliglioli.   



15 thoughts on “Be Research Informed!

  1. Curious about points 3-6 in Gary’s stages of EBP above. It seems simplistic to me, to say what we should do with ‘the evidence’ , particularly ‘critically judge’ and ‘weigh’.
    In my view, these require standard frameworks or agreed/tried and tested procedures and will certainly have personal epistemologies and lens that determine and shape both how different people read the evidence and how different people reach different outcomes.

    Presumably the notion of ‘spaced practice’ is non-linear? The description sounds very much like the kind of knowledge transfer learning that is out of vogue – or more in place in the schools context. FE teaching/learning may see other models (Double-loop learning – Argyris). While this (as far as I’m aware) may have no evidence base in meta-analyses, it’s a process model (over a product one) more fitting with FE/vocational, but that’s another discussion.

    I think we’re too hung up on memory. Much of it can be outsourced to technology – we do that routinely in the work place. It’s probably important in schools – the Piagetian developments stages, if you like – but beyond school, learning is (or should be) more fine-grained than simple retention IMHO.

    1. I agree re: 3-6 of EBP, but dialogue with peers about this better than a top down sheep-dip approach.

      With regards to memory, I disagree. I think outsourcing to tech is a bad view to take. We need knowledge to enable the higher order stuff – problem solving, critical thinking etc. Further, the lack of cultural capital in typical FE learners means a need to acquire knowledge is even more important IMO. Yes out of vogue, but needn’t be. The principles of cognitive psychology apply to all, but as Oliver alludes to, there may be a need to approach instruction different in some cases. Sorry if this isn’t clear, my views are still developing and I’m writing this with a 2 year old running around!

  2. Thanks Howard. I’ve wanted to start a similar investigation into the most appropriate way of incorporating cognitive science (aka psychology) into an FE context.
    Certainly the recent enthusiasm for, and successes with, it in schools must take into account the fact that the students are not adults and do not attend as volunteers.
    However, there has been significant progress away from teachers’ prejudice against memory. My view is that the common mental model among the majority of school teachers (yes, I know I shouldn’t generalize line this) is of a continuum with memory and understanding at opposite ends.
    That view is no longer tenable. Sweller, among others, defies anyone to claim they have learned something if it hadn’t been lodged into their long-term memory.
    Additionally, and this begins to touch on your point about process and double-loop learning, the acquisition of knowledge had been shown to be a critical entry point for creativity to occur.
    As for old Piaget, he and others have been well and truly trounced for their inaccurate, value-laden views of learning. Progressive notions of stages of learning, the naturalness of learning, the need for student engagement and interest, along with the consequent role of teacher-as-facilitator, have all taken a hammering both in terms of evidence from cognitive science and from declining student performance in terms of exam results.
    But back to your main point, as I see it, of the FE context being different to regular school classrooms. Yes, oh course, and significantly so.
    And yet, it seems to me, whatever the difference in social dynamics of FE colleges, we can’t ignore the highly significant changes in educational thinking as progressive ideology era slammed by looking at cognitive science.
    The question for me is how best to find ways of incorporating this cognitive science evidence to align with and be productive in the FE context.
    It really need not conform to stereotypes of school pupils cramming for exams, nor of passivity. There will be approaches that honour adult status, the need for independence and social collaboration, and creativity that sit well with a rigour of teaching content in the most effective ways.

    1. Something else I’ve learned recently that I think may influence this exploration. It is the phenomenon of feeling having learned something, and indeed having greatly enjoyed the experience, only to find, only an hour or so later, that one couldn’t answer the simplest of questions about the content in question.

      This has been reported on by eminent cognitive scientists themselves. Why I think it’s relevant is because teachers can set up wonderfully engaging collaborative and creative activities, where students are fully engaged, and indeed if observed, managers and inspectors would be overflowing in their praise, but, if push came to shove, and the learning had to be tested, the results may not be any where close to expectations.

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