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How do pupils learn?

September 17, 2017

This blog post is a new document for our school. It will hopefully share some of the most importany findings of cognitive science and give our staff a shared vocabulary when it comes to the messy business of pupil learning. It is going to be a “live” document and the “in the classroom” sections are deliberately brief. My hope is that over the next 12 months departmts can add to these sections by including what that looks like in their subject area.

The document is mainly based on the superb The Science of Learning by The Deans for Impact. Other influences are credited throughout.

The main sections are

  • How do students understand new information?
  • How do students learn and retain new information?
  • How do students solve problems and transfer learning to new situations inside and outside the classroom?
  • Other considerations

Here is the summary document:


Here is the fuller document:

The ten features of effective lessons is a useful focus on what constitutes effective practice. However, it must be seen in a wider context of pupil learning.

This Document focuses on important considerations for pupil learning that go beyond the scope of a single lesson. It looks at how students understand, retain and transfer this knowledge and skills.

what is learning

  • How  do students understand new ideas?

Students learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know. A well sequenced curriculum is important to ensure that students have the prior knowledge needed to master new ideas. Elaboration is needed and links need to be made with relevant background knowledge. Students learn differently because of their differing amounts of background knowledge and how this new knowledge fits into this background knowledge to build schema.


classroom 1

To learn, students must transfer information from working memory to long term memory where it is stored and potentially later retrieved. Students have limited working memory capacities that can be overwhelmed by tasks that are cognitively too demanding (intrinsic load) or involve too many items to process (extraneous load).

classroom 2.png

Another way of reducing cognitive overload of working memory is to combine words and pictures when we are making explanations (see Teacher Clarity in 10 features of Effective Lessons). Research on dual coding suggest that students can simultaneous process through their visual and auditory channels which mean more information can be absorbed without causing any cognitive overload of working memory. What this means is that pictures, graphs, photos, diagrams or animations should be combined with verbal explanations. If the two types of information complement each other then learning will be enhanced. But if the two sources of information are split – such as speaking aloud with different text displayed visually- attention is divided and learning is impaired.


Further reading on Cognitive Load Theory by @Olivercavigliol

  • How do students learn and retain new information?

We want students to think about meaning when they encounter new information.

classroom 3.png

Making Explanations Stick by @shaun_allison

Spacing (and distributed practice), interleaving and retrieval practice can help students remember content over the long term. Spacing is when topics are revisited/skills practiced over time (weeks, months). If you are to retain access to new knowledge over time periods of months and years then it needs to be revisited a number of times after it has been first encountered. The challenge is doing this with finite curriculum time. This idea is not new. It is based on the forgetting curve first proposed by Ebbinghaus in the 19th Century.


Teachers often feel frustrated that students seem to forget nearly everything that they learned last week or last month or last year. The truth is that forgetting information (or more accurately a reduction in retrieval strength) is how the brain works. In reality the memory is still stored (with a storage strength) but the retrieval strength decreases over time. By revisiting information, we can increase both storage and retrieval strength.ace.png

Further reading by @AceThatTest

Spacing is even more effective if combined with retrieval practice. The art of practising recalling information from memory enhances learning because it reduces the rate of forgetting by increasing retrieval and storage strength of the information. When information is successfully retrieved from memory, its representation in memory is changed such that it becomes more recallable in the future (Bjork, 1975); and this improvement is often greater than the benefit resulting from additional study.

classroom 4

The best time to attempt retrieval of information is on the verge of it being forgotten. In action that is not easy but if we space out retrieval practice and make the time delay longer each time then learners’ understanding and recall will be massively enhanced. It is better to teach once and space the retrieval than teach once, delay for too long and then have to teach again.


This is why distributed practice is better than massed practice (in the long term). The balance must be struck to ensure enough initial practice is done to ensure conceptual understanding (not moving on too quickly).

Spacing, interleaving and retrieval practice are known as desirable difficulties. The reason they are not widely used is that they are more difficult and because of this students appear less fluent in their learning. For example, reading and highlighting notes for revision can give the illusion of fluency whereas trying to recall the material is so much more difficult but leads to greater long term retention. Rather counter intuitively, introducing certain difficulties into the learning process can greatly improve long-term retention of the learned material. The reason is that this difficulty forces learners into a deeper processing of material.



More on Optimal Spacing Gaps.

  • How do students solve problems and transfer learning to new situations inside and outside the classroom?

Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long term memory, aids problem solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied. The size and content of this set varies by subject. The facts could be key vocabulary in languages or times tables in Maths. If a student is trying to solve a problem and it involves the calculation 6×8 then it helps if the student knows the answer automatically. A student that has to stop and try to calculate this multiplication will add to their cognitive load and they may lose track of the larger problem.

classroom 5

  • Other considerations


However, students are not memory sticks . They need to be motivated, to see a point, to know what it’s for along the way. That’s what so much of our job is – persuading and showing what they can do with this accumulating awareness of the world (not my words, thanks @andyphilipday).

Students are more motivated if they believe that their intelligence and ability can be improved through hard work (a Growth Mindset). We can help this by praising (and rewarding) productive student effort and strategies which are under the student’s control rather than their ability. The term ability should not be used in our school. We should talk about current attainment rather than ability, particularly when describing teaching sets. Low ability is the most limiting term that we can use in school.

Metacognition is also an important area to focus on. Metacognition describes the processes involved when learners plan, monitor, evaluate and make changes to their own learning behaviours. However, this is not easy. Students do not find articulating their learning an easy thing to do. They will often say that they read, worked in as group and answered questions etc. They also don’t always judge accurately how well they have learned.

classroom 6.png

More on metacognition by @effortfuleduktr

and modelling metacognition by @johntomsett

Teaching pupils mnemonics is a very useful way of making the forgettable more memorable. Mnemonics can help chunk information together, often in a specific order, and they can give the information a naturally higher retrieval strength than they otherwise may have. This means that they are less likely to be forgotten.


classroom 7

More on Mnemonics by @joe__kirby

Thanks for reading. Constructive criticism welcome as always.




From → Teaching

  1. Thanks for this informative research. Every line of the document is worthy and is very helpful for all teachers

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