In this post we look at principles about how your brain deals with learning and what it means for your course design.

Cognitive science is...

the study of thought, learning, and mental organization, which draws on aspects of psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and computer modelling.
- Oxford Dictionary

We're interested in cognitive science because it gives us more than just anecdotes on how people learn. It gives us explanations and theories backed up by research. Research that will continue to be tested, revised and tested again. So let's take a look at what cognitive science has to say.

The principles (some of and hugely simplified) are this:

  • Humans have working memory and long term memory.
  • Working memory processes information and has limited capacity.
  • Humans have two separate channels for processing via working memory, verbal and visual.
  • Long term memory stores information and is has much greater capacity.
  • Information is stored in long term memory in structures (schema) which are hierarchical and relational.
  • When we are problem-solving or learning new information we retrieve information from our long term memory and process using our working memory.
  • The better stored information is, the easier it is to retrieve.
  • Regular retrieval strengthens memory, making it easier to retrieve it later on.

The very talented Oliver Caviglioli has summarised most of these principles beautifully.

Dual coding theory showing that verbal and visual stimuli are not processed simultaneously.

So as authors, designing courses essentially, what we want to do is:

1. Help with storage and organisation

Help learners create a well-organised storage system for what you’re going to teach them. Because if they know whereabouts it’s stored, they can retrieve it more easily.

Think about how much easier it is to find that zester kitchen gadget when you know you’ve tucked it in next to the peeler because they have related uses.

2. Help with processing

Chunk information. And communicate the idea using both channels (verbal and visual) and be very careful not to overload one or the other.

Disclaimer: We are not talking about learning styles here! They have been thoroughly debunked. What we are talking about are limited capacities in our two processing channels.

Think about when someone’s giving a presentation, they’ve just put up some slides, you’re reading them, they’re explaining… you get part way through and think: “Wait… what did they just say?”. Even though you see words, you process them verbally. So here you’re trying to process both the written and spoken word through the verbal channel. It’s too much. You’re overloaded and you miss things. Instead, the presenter could have just images while they speak or, wait long enough for you to read the slides, then speak.

3. Help with retrieval and encoding

Have learners retrieve new information or skills (again and again) and elaborate on what they know to make it stick (getting it into their long term memory).

Think about how easy it is to navigate around your email that you use every day vs how long you spend in that spreadsheeting application looking for “the button that does that thing”. If at any point you were in a position to explain to someone else where to find that spreadsheet button, you’re more likely to remember it.

So we're busy putting together a series of articles based on some of these principles for you to use in designing your courses.

We'll be updating this post with links to these topics as they're written.