Playing with science

A teacher shortage recently led to me being asked to take Biology for the last 10 weeks of an Access to HE course (this includes holidays). My background in sports science lends itself well to the subject and having deliberately tried to implement some key principles of cognitive psychology (science) into my practice recently, I thought it would be a great opportunity to experiment further with this biology class.


With a subject that requires excellent domain knowledge, it is important that I structure the content in a way that minimises cognitive load. According to Sweller (here and here), Cognitive Load Theory extends upon Miller’s work, positing that working memory has a limited capacity and therefore learners cannot perceive all information that they encounter, particularly if it is presented in a poorly organised way.  Ultimately, the more we can limit the burden on our working memory, the more likely it is that we can create schema (memory patterns) in long-term memory. In order to reduce working memory load we must ensure that instruction is designed effectively. Sweller informs us that cognitive load can be separated into three forms:

  1. Intrinsic load is the level of difficulty associated with the topic (in this case Biology).
  2. Germane load is related to the work put into creating a permanent store of knowledge (schema).
  3. Extraneous load is the way things are delivered to the learner and if this is not mapped well to the learner’s existing knowledge and understanding (schema), then it may become burdensome.

If we can reduce Extraneous load (by having sound instructional design), then this means that we can free up working memory to increase the Germane load – a good thing for developing long term memory.


With the above mentioned in mind, I created the following outline/delivery schedule. Below this, you will see a rationale with links to research for why I planned as I did.

plan A

  1. The module covers three interlinked topics: the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system and blood. You will see that topics are spaced in order to be revisited every 2-3 weeks, which is considered about optimum according to the research of Dunlosky et al. Furthermore, there is no pattern to the way the topics are planned, instead I have attempted to interleave the topics, which is another aspect of design that supports long-term retention.
  2. Despite only being taught for 10 weeks (2 hours per week), learners revisit each topic area on at least two occasions by way of formal exposition and then throughout tests from week to week. Where gaps in knowledge are identified, this is immediately addressed. Repetition of knowledge in various ways occurs through the workbooks that they complete during each lesson. For example, labelling diagrams, gap fills, self-explanation, and multi-choice questions. This means that they are revisiting key information many times both within and beyond the lesson.
  3. You will see that I have built in tests everywhere. Testing offers multiple benefits to learners, as highlighted by Roediger et al.  here, not least to identify gaps in knowledge and also provide opportunities to practice retrieval of information, which strengthens the memory trace. These tests are planned in an array of ways, including initial and end of lesson multiple choice quiz, teacher questioning, self-quizzing, and Google form multiple choice quiz which is sent a few days after each session. Online learning also culminates with an online quiz to be completed following a period of learning (via video/reading).
  4. I planned for all exposition to include clear visuals to reduce cognitive load. This includes a combination of simple and more complex diagrams. In splitting the attention using a multi-mode delivery (both visual and audio information), for example, the flow of blood through the heart, the learners are able to more easily understand key processes.
  5. Analogies and metaphors (see previous post) are also frequently included in explanations in order to reduce cognitive load. For example, the flow of blood through the heart is like a heating system. The red blood cells bio-concave shape means it is like a rubber ring which can be manipulated to alter its shape etc. These help learners link new information to simple things that they should already be aware of and thus support the acquisition of knowledge.
  6.  Use of memory aids whilst delivering information is also planned. This tends to occur with complex terminology, for instance ‘erythrocytes’ (red blood cells) aka ‘Aretha Franklin’ (similar sounding). ‘S‘ympathetic nervous system ‘S‘peeds things up (Same starting letter). Mnemonics (see previous post) for the components of the respiratory system: ‘Never, Over, Play, Long, Through, Balls, Because, [it’s] Awful’ (Nasal cavity, Oral cavity, Pharynx, Larnynx, Trachea, Bronchus, Bronchiloes, Alveoli). Each of these reduces the strain of learning complex terminology and therefore should assist in the acquisition of this information.


If I’m honest, the above practice isn’t anything drastically different to how I’d typically teach, but I am being more purposeful in the planning and delivery of content to enhance the learning experience. I’m just about to start week 5 and already several learners are commenting that they feel they’re learning a lot and that it is sticking and quiz results corroborate this. Initial reflections are around how I might further enhance Germane load through the organisation of the content, so if I’m given the opportunity to do this again, then the above plan is likely to change.


Can you use any of the above principles in your planning to make your teaching just that little bit better?


One thought on “Playing with science

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s