Cognitive Science of Teaching and Learning


I recently read a book by Daniel Willingham titled Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.  The title itself is misleading — the book says very little about why students don’t like school — but the subtitle nails it. This volume surveys the breakthroughs in cognitive science from the past 2 or 3 decades, and identifies the implications of these results to teaching and learning.
There are insights, for example, into the neurological process of building memories, and ways to enhance this process in the classroom.  These involve the role of repetition, story-building, and tying in emotions in some way. It can also be said that memory follows cognition; rather than memorize a formula by rote, a student is more likely to retain it after applying it in a series of practice problems.  The learning experience is enhanced further if the subject matter could be engaged at a deeper emotional level.
There are perhaps some surprises in these findings.  Studying with the music on, for example, is detrimental to learning, contrary to the often held view that it promotes concentration.  In fact, any kind of multi-tasking has a similarly adverse effect.  This tells us that the TV shouldn’t be on when doing homework, even with the sound turned off.  Even having one’s cell phone nearby interferes with the learning process to a small degree.
There is a great deal of information in this book that could be used by teachers (and sufficiently mature students) to make the most of learning opportunities.