How cognitive psychology can help us better educate our students (#ACPEEP)

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 17, 2010

I’m in a three day mini-conference right now, with a bunch of psychologists, and a ton of undergraduate education reformers like me.  The psychologists are all cognitive psychologists (i.e., they deal with how people think), and they’re part of a consortium called Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice (ACPEEP).  It’s a star-studded show, including Henry Roediger (though he actually couldn’t make it this week), Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, and Janet Metcalfe, among others.  We’re spending three days talking about how undergraduate education reform can take tips and tricks from what we know about how people think and learn.  I’m sure I’ll have more than one blog post from this conference, but let’s start with the main principles that they communicated to us in the first day.

  1. Testing helps you learn

I’ve blogged about this before (here and here).  The act of taking a test can be a learning experience, not just a way to assess you on what you already know.  One of the main reasons, they hypothesize, is that the act of retrieval strengthens the neuronal connections.  That seems to fit with the fact that multiple choice tests aren’t as strong of a learning experience as are short-answer tests (McDaniel et al, 2007).  Another concern of multiple choice tests is that there is some evidence that getting the wrong answer can introduce wrong information (Roediger and Marsh, 2005).   So, Elizabeth Bjork said, this suggests that we have to construct our alternatives to our multiple-choice tests carefully – so that the alternative, “wrong” answers require students to recall information in order to reject them.  This has obvious implications for both the use of clickers, and the construction of the alternative answers on clicker questions.

2.  Spaced studying

A ton of evidence shows that you remember things longer if you space out your study sessions.  That means studying for the exam for a week or so, in multiple sessions, rather than cramming the night before.  But how long of a gap is optimal between study sessions, to increase how long you remember the information?  The current research seems to suggest that the longer you want to remember something, the longer the study gap should be.  So, if you want to remember something for a few years, you probably need a few months’ gap between study sessions.  This suggests that cumulative finals are probably a great thing, since you have to study for the midterm, and then for the final, with a gap of several months.

But there must be a point of diminishing returns – spaced testing/studying helps you learn, but at what point does this testing take up more time than it’s worth in terms of how much more you’re learning?  As Kathryn Rawson told us, “More is better, but more is increasingly less better.”  So, to be efficient, you don’t want to over-study.  If she had to give tentative quantitative numbers, she suggested that students should study until they’d been able to correctly recall the answer three times in their initial study session, and then follow this with three more spaced sessions over time.

3.  Desireable difficulties

The idea of “desireable difficulties” is that you don’t learn if something is too easy.  Certain difficulties help you learn.  For example, if you study in the same place all the time, then your learning might be highly contextualized, and thus you won’t do as well on the test.  A desireable difficulty is to study in multiple places.  Another desireable difficulty would be spacing out your study sessions, instead of cramming.  However, a lot of these strategies don’t produce quick learning, so people don’t use them.  We cram for a test because it does work, at least to be able to recall the information in the short-term.  But these “easy” strategies (like massed practice/”cramming”) don’t create long-term learning.


Emilee June 17, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Hi there! I really enjoy your blog. This post especially caught my interest. I’m wondering if you know of any good introductory books/articles (preferably not textbooks) on cognitive psychology. I’m interested in learning how people learn, and how that could help me be a more effective teacher.

Robert June 17, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Very cool, Stephanie. I was just doing some wanderings on the Net looking for cognitive learning stuff and it occurred to me to check out your blog. What great timing! Would like to talk to you more about what you’ve learned from the workshop sometime!

And on a personal note: I can attest to the fact that I NEVER followed the things you laid out on your post except once–and it actually worked! Back in the day in my undergrad hey days, I went into the final of my 2nd semester of calculus with a B+. The professor’s lectures were ok, but I found I just wasn’t grasping things well enough to do raise my grade. So when I studied for the final, I didn’t cram, made a point of studing a few times in the hall where we were going to take the test, and didn’t do any studying in one single place. As a consequence, I finished the test early and raised my grade enough to get an A-. I was so proud of myself….but since then, have I done that in other instances? Probably not since procrastination takes over practicality.

sciencegeekgirl June 17, 2010 at 8:18 pm

. I’m wondering if you know of any good introductory books/articles (preferably not textbooks) on cognitive psychology. .

Hi Emilee,

Glad you enjoy it! The best reference I can suggest is How People Learn by Bransford and Brown. It’s not quite a textbook, but is a compendium of all we know about learning sciences, by the National Academy of Sciences.

There are also two other places with good lists of research and popular articles that I have available, and you could browse for items of interest:

sciencegeekgirl June 17, 2010 at 8:20 pm

I was just doing some wanderings on the Net looking for cognitive learning stuff and it occurred to me to check out your blog. What great timing!

Thanks for the note, Robert, glad you liked it!

Do look through the category called “How people learn” for all my posts on the learning sciences. Happy to chat more about it! I’ll be at DMNS tonight for the evening program, but I bet you’ll be gone.


sciencegeekgirl June 18, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Just found out about this nice website with more cognitive science as applied to instruction (especially for eLearning, but much is broadly applicable)

sciencegeekgirl June 28, 2010 at 3:14 am

A friend (Bruce Kuznicki) posted this over on my Facebook feed of this blog, and I thought it was interesting enough to share here:

Thanks, Stephanie. I’ve also read the research critical of multiple choice testing.. I recall, too, that during my teacher credentialing, the professors were big into more comprehensive methods of assessment. I came up with several different means of doing alternative assessments, but I got over my head quickly, having not anticipated how much work… See More it would produce for me. Other factors affected my experience and performance that year but at the end I was so overwhelmed I was glad to leave teaching altogether and to return home to help my son. That turned out to be a good move on several unanticipated levels, but that’s beside the point.. if I could go back and do that year again, I’d probably stick closely to those objective assessments for at least a year and maybe two, because had I wished to make a career of it, I’d have needed that time to get a firm footing vis a vis the basics.. and then, too, there have been times when I’ve felt relieved to know that a test I’m helping Bruce study for will be MC rather than a performance based assessment; it makes me think he has a better chance of scoring well, which for a variety of factors has sometimes seemed to me an important objective of a particular moment.

My question is this– considering the time limitations faced by many teachers, and considering the fact that teachers will sometimes want to test recall, which MC tests seem well designed for, is there any support in the academic and research communities for certain kinds of objective testing– i.e. questions and answer combinations with appropriate distractors that are able to provide the teacher with the needed efficiency yet can in good conscience be said to test more than mere recall? I think I can imagine how I could construct a simple MC test that would be more thoughtful than others, but are there other ways that have gained acceptance? Or am I wrong in assuming there is ANY objective assessment tool that the research can support?


I answered:

Bruce, There is some … See Moreresearch on what makes a good MC item. Email me at and I’ll mail you an article about constructing good MC items. Another thing that i was told verbally by the cognitive psychologists is that the best MC items force students to recall something for each item. For example, a MC question on vocabulary could be constructed so that the student has to remember what each word in the answer choices means. That cements those words in his/her memory, as well.

Another thing is that MC items can be used to test higher order thinking, as when a question is constructed so that the student has to really think and understand in order to answer it. Many of the questions in physics are like this. For some examples, see the question banks at

sciencegeekgirl June 28, 2010 at 3:16 am

And another comment from my Facebook feed on this post, from Matthew Apple:

Japanese students are famous both for cramming and for over-testing…because the employers demand it (particularly, the standardized English exam known as TOEIC). One reason repeat exam taking looks good is that any built-in test error is virtually eliminated by repeat test taking (of course, the drawback is that students are basically only … See Moreproving that they are good at *taking tests,* rather than *good at what the test tests.*). As to what “learning” exactly constitutes is, IMHO, still very much open to debate. For sure, well-constructed exams are a part of learning, since the knowledge that you will eventually be evaluated by a test that cannot be bribed, threatened, cajoled, or otherwise hoodwinked by coquetry/flattery/pleading is an effective motivator. However, is that why we want people to learn? Solely for the purpose of taking a test? Once the test is passed, the motivation for learning evaporates, leaving only a shell of a potential learner.

I’m a big proponent of “alternative assessments” for ESL learners (particularly portfolios, which require students not only to track their own progress towards specific goals, but also to reflect on and justify their choices for inclusion of learner-created materials in the portfolios). However, MC exams are hands-down the most reliable and valid method for testing ability in any field…if, indeed, that is your goal. Learners probably won’t learn much them, however, so if your goal is to give tests back to learners for the purposes of reflective feedback, then short answer/short essay answer may be more effective. Unfortunately, short answer/essay exams are extremely difficult to validate across sample populations. Rasch and other IRT measurement models help to equate exams and raters for written/oral exams, but it’s very difficult and time-consuming for the average teacher to do this kind of analysis.

As for “learning how to learn” the US gov’t report, “How People Learn” is a good introduction to this topic as well as an excellent read about basic “brain science,” i.e., educational learning from an applied science perspective. It was required reading for my doctoral “Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition” course a few years back. I found it very thought-provoking.

About MC tests, it’s very, very hard to make good distractors. I’m constantly amazed that Japanese universities spend enormous amounts of time and effort each year … See Morecreating MC entrance exams, and yet fail to do any item reliability analysis afterward, fail to create item banks for future use, fail to do anything that all the Japanese researchers themselves know to be crucial according to testing theories. I was asked to make two entrance exams a while ago, and when I asked later if I could analyze the results to determine the item difficulty levels, the administrator asked me, “Well, what do *you* think the most difficult items were?” He didn’t understand that item difficulty is a result of the *student responses,* and not what I personally think. Unbelievable.

But on the other hand, completely in line with Japanese social beliefs. The Japanese attitude of “worship the teacher” is totally at odds with their international reputation for objective research in the hard sciences. Not surprisingly, the only way for Japanese researchers to get decent, helpful critiques of their work is for them to take a sabbatical to an American research uni or institute (the recent Nobel Prize laureates were in Boston and Chicago).

Darin L. Hammond December 1, 2012 at 12:40 am

Engaging insights about cognition and learning. I teach undergraduate English courses, and I always try to include studying and learning tips along the way, and I will certainly share these with my students.

Incidentally, from my own experience and studying, I’ve found them all to be accurate. The key is in moving the subject into long term storage, and this is not easy. The reason for this is one of the great secrets of the mind because our brains know that not all information is of equal value. Just think if we learned and remembered all things equally well. The result would be disaster as we would permanently remember the trivial as well as the significant, and therefore, less space would exist for the most important ideas. Thanks for sharing what you learned from your conference.

Stephanie Chasteen December 1, 2012 at 4:23 am

Thanks for the comments, Darin! Indeed, it’s amazing how well our mind’s heuristics work for filtering out information and letting us navigate the complex world. Now we just have to use those heuristics for our betterment!

Darin L. Hammond December 1, 2012 at 6:05 am

Agreed, for our betterment is the tricky part. Even harder to spread the love to my students.

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