Distance learning

Learn more

Cognitive science in course design

Cognitive science in course design

In a recent woobinar, we shared 8 best practices to apply in your course design, to help improve your students’ learning. However, before we get to that, let’s have a quick look at the fundamental principles of cognitive science on which these practices are based. In other words:

How do students learn best?

Since the mid-1950s, cognitive science has sought to understand how the human brain acquires, uses, and transmits knowledge. According to cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, and Professor Stanislas Dehaene, there are 4 main contributors to successful learning, which he refers to as the “four pillars of learning”.

They are:

  • Attention: One can’t learn without paying attention, which means teachers must draw and maintain the students’ attention in order for them to learn effectively.
  • Active engagement: If one wants to remember new information, passively listening to the teacher is insufficient.
  • Feedback: When we make a mistake, we actually make a prediction and the error causes a discrepancy between that prediction and reality. This leads us to make a new prediction, and these successive adjustments favour learning.
  • Consolidation: Memorising new information or acquiring new skills is merely the first step. Knowledge must be consolidated if it is to be durable. Professor Dehaene also notes that sleep plays an essential part in this process.

“That’s great, but how do I apply it in my course design?”

I’m glad you asked, because we’re about to look at a few tips to capture your students’ attention, keep them engaged, and help them recall and consolidate what you want to teach them.

8 ways to apply the pillars of learning in your courses

1. Use Icebreakers

An icebreaker aims to get the conversation started, by breaking the awkwardness or silence, getting people to know one another, and simply giving them the chance to interact. The best thing about icebreakers is their range: any question or challenge can be used to break the ice.

This includes ideas like:

  • How would you describe yourself in 1 word?
  • If you were an animal, what would you be?
  • Show me the ugliest object in your house (in a distance learning setting).

2. Arouse the students’ curiosity

When starting a new chapter, try telling an anecdote, performing an experiment, or asking your students what they know about the topic you’re going to broach. For example, Wooclap lets you create Word clouds with your students, giving you a snapshot of what they are thinking about at that moment, and making them feel invested in the lesson.

3. Regularly ask them to participate in an activity

Though researchers can’t agree on the length of the average person’s attention span, they do agree that listening passively does not help. It is better for students to ask themselves questions, speculate about potential hypotheses, or perform experiments to fully understand what they are learning.

That is why it is important to regularly ask learners to actively participate in some way - or actually, in many different ways:

4. Diversify the types of activity

Try to switch up the activities you offer to avoid creating a repetitive pattern within your course: quizzes, games, debates, peer-to-peer instruction… These are but a few of the many ways in which you can liven up a lecture and create real student engagement.

For example, Wooclap alone offers more than 15 different question-types you can use to ask students to participate in a new and stimulating exercise.

5. Use anonymity to increase participation

Thanks to digital tools like Wooclap, students now have the ability to participate in a lesson without having to raise their hand or voice.

Anonymous participation can be liberating for many students, because it allows them to contribute to the lecture without the fear of public speaking and embarrassment. As a tutor, this gives you a clear window into the minds of all your learners, not just the few who don’t mind speaking in front of an audience.

6. Gamify your course

Gamification and competition increase the appeal of learning activities. Students are more engaged when they are asked to take part in something new, innovative, and fun. You can ask students to perform experiments, turn your course into a quest, design pedagogical escape games, make students solve a series of puzzles, and more!

7. Activate your students’ memory

This is one of those things that seems easier said than done, but is it really? Stimulating students’ brains to create and activate neural connections is paramount, but that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult. Here are two learning strategies that can be easily implemented:

  • Retrieval practice: Retrieval practice essentially means trying to recall information that has been previously stored in long-term memory. Students try to recall the most important information related to a concept or topic without looking at any course material (text, notes, slides…). Once they have completed the retrieval, they check the material to see how accurate and complete their retrieval was.
  • Spaced practice: Rather than spending one long session studying something, it is better to space out that time over multiple sessions. As a teacher, all you need are a few minutes to create opportunities to revisit concepts throughout the year.

8. Get feedback to keep improving your future courses

Don’t forget that feedback is a two-way street: students may look to you for feedback on how they did on a test or activity, but you can ask them for the same thing. By finding out what they enjoy, their likes and dislikes, you eventually develop learning methods that are not only effective, but enjoyable for everyone involved.

If you want to learn more about these 8 tips and how you can implement them in your courses, you can have a look at the woobinar here!

Gauthier Lebbe

Gauthier Lebbe

Content Editor @ Wooclap, interested in and excited about applying EdTech to the educational needs of today’s students