Guest post: My approach in using cognitive psychology in teaching


My approach in using cognitive psychology in teaching

Raejohn Shiplee

Right before I start I need to let you know this is a work in progress. I have tried to read up about cognitive psychology as I want to use research to guide me in my decisions for my teaching, ultimately to improve my student’s perceptions of learning and their grades.

I am by no means an expert; in fact I would say I’m a novice. These are my interpretations on the conversations I have had and the books/blogs/research papers I have read and put into practice.

Here is a quick overview of what I am trying at the moment.


I always find that examples help me understand what is going on so I will attempt to explain through a Year 8 topic – Limestone chemistry.

What do you know about (WDYKA)

My first attempt at this was to do a pre-check – which was questions linked to each CREF.

My reasons for doing a pre check were (not in any particular order):

1. To provide a baseline assessment to measure progress. (BIG mistake- it’s not for me it’s for my students).
2. To show my students what types of questions will be asked during this topic.
3. To get students to write their answers down so I could check for misconceptions.*
4. For students to see what they knew and didn’t know. ((MAIN REASON)).

This provided problematic for a few reasons:

1. Time to construct enough quality questions which didn’t repeat in other checks later on.
2. Time to mark and give colour coded feedback (more about this later).
3. Time taken out of the lesson (usually 30 mins).
4. Some students became switched off as it was ‘not another test Sir’.
5. Some students couldn’t see the point of them because ‘Why am I being tested on something I don’t know yet’.
6. Many students felt threatened by them, either as they felt they were being found out or that they felt they should already know it. I suppose in hindsight I would identify these students as having fixed mindsets (both at opposite points of the scale so called low achievers and high achievers).

* Conceptual growth and conceptual change are two areas I need to read more into.

I have now changed the pre check to a WDYKA to mitigate the issues but retain the elements of why do a pre check. This is an A4 sheet which has some key questions, linked to a CREF, which I want to check. It usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes of a lesson and about 10 mins to mark a class set.

How to:

* I ask them to write down what they think they know about each question.

* I don’t want them to discuss it.

* I don’t want them to look at other students answers.


These are then checked and anything correct is highlighted in green. This is the only feedback given.

During Instruction

This is the part where I teach through the use of criteria references. First a bit about CREFs.

Criteria references (CREFS)




I have designed a set of questions called criteria references that ALL students must achieve mastery on. These criteria references are based upon the AQA GCSE chemistry specification (old spec) as well as referenced against the PiXL group (partners in excellence) personalised learning charts (PLC) at KS3.

I have taken many attempts to get them right, but I am still modifying. My first attempts could have up to 25 CREFs to cater for all students to access the topic. Through delivering the topic I have found this unworkable as the pre and post checks are too long and the question quality was poor.

I have tried to incorporate the ideas of desirable difficulties (Bjork 1994) and concept thresholds (Meyer and Land (2003), but must also acknowledge the knowledge they must know for the syllabus.

All students are given a paper matrix with the criteria. It allows students to see what is expected of them and allows those who want move ahead to do so. This is a good characteristic of a student with a great attitude to learning.


I have tried to base the CREFs around a 1 hour lesson; this is to help me in structuring the topic as well as ordering requisitions for any experiments (which have to be in a week before). I will only proceed to the next lesson if the majority of the class show understanding. If I need more time (or less) then I will do so. In effect I am slowing down (or speeding it up) the learning; it is a different way of looking at pace in a lesson.

During instruction I will give my students a particular question related to a CREF. This is self marked and corrections made if needed. In their book margins the CREF is written and if they wish they can self RAG rate. Their book is therefore referenced for future use.

I know that these questions are only checking their working/short term memory but I want them to:

a. show their understanding of the CREF
b. have a go. I don’t care if they are wrong, and I tell them this, providing they make corrections
c. make corrections and to re-encode if necessary
d. have a set of detailed notes.

Throughout the instruction they are given verbal feedback as well as a formative feedback task (I have to follow my schools guidelines on marking).


This sheet is given to them after their first attempt so they can improve. I have provided them with suggested ideas for marking points as I believe if they knew it the first time they would have provided the answer there and then, it is just that they need some scaffolding to help them along the way. It particular helps those which have yet to gain the necessary skills to interrogate a resource as it helps to focus on the key ideas.

Interleaved homework

This is something I’m working on small scale with my current Y11s. Although not strictly interleaving the concept is to give students two or three exam style questions.

I am thinking:

Q1: Old topic which has been covered over 3 months ago.

Q2: Recent topic 1-3 months ago (usually the last topic covered)

Q3: Current topic.

The homework must be quick (10 -15 mins) and must be past paper questions or in the style they will get at GCSE. This is a bit tricky at the moment as the style of questions is unclear at the moment as is what a grade 1 or grade 9 question will look like.

The homework setting and deadlines must also be the same week in week out.

More on this another time…

Multi-choice questions.


This is set as homework in readiness for their pre-check. I have looked at lot at how to construct MCQ and I have to agree it takes a lot longer to construct than say a set of short answer questions. It is all about the quality of the answers.

One avenue I am exploring is the use of the WDYKA as the students will come up with misconceptions. The only problem I see is that since the misconceptions need to be as close to concept threshold as possible, I don’t think the students will come up with a sufficiently good alternative answer. I will look though as you never know.

The MCQ are designed to be a quick to answer and mark. The answers are discussed in class; I’m trying to include some meta-cognition (think about the thinking) and self evaluation here. Sometimes I will show how I answer the question, usually breaking the question down into what the command word is and what it means, and then what knowledge do you have about the question. It is a kind of answer anticipation. Other times I invite students to give

and then justify their answers; this can provide discussions and chances to air their misconceptions and to re-encode.

I haven’t gone down the one answer for each question either. I have added the instruction:

“The following multi-choice questions may have one or multiple (more than one) answers”.

In this question there are two answers. (A and D).


Most (but not all) research suggests MCQ (MC) are just as good as short answer (SA) questions, ‘Evidence suggests little or no advantage of answering SA questions over MC questions in 3 experiments’.(Smith & Karpicke (2013), but the key reason for doing so was to reduce my marking.

More on this another time…



Every single CREF has a question. It is clearly signposted on the question paper.

These are marked before the next lesson, colour coding the CREF as red, amber or green as well as the piece of information in the answer.


The lesson breaks down like this:

* A new matrix is given. This shows extra columns.


* Students colour code the homework (MCQ) and pre check columns.

* Students reflect by choosing three CREF strengths I can… & 3 CREF developmental areas I need to …. They can decide what CREFs they wish based on these two checks.

* Students are then given a set of reflection questions and they identify the three I need to … CREFs.


* I have already collated the information in an excel sheet so I can see which areas the class haven’t done very well in. I show them the three areas as a class we haven’t answered well in and provide new instruction, either as a lecture style or the same questions which I talk through and annotate.

* Students then answer these three questions (Some students actually answer more than three of the reflection questions based on the pre check feedback). I show them the class RAG rating results so they can speak to students for help on a particular question. I also encourage the use

* Reflection questions are marked and if needed corrected for the next lesson.

Post check

This is usually given the next lesson, BUT looking at the research I think I will delay this by a few weeks. This is to utilise the spacing effect.

The format is exactly the same as the pre check, each CREF has a question.

Again this will be RAG rated and then the students can add the colour coding to their matrix.

Finally any student wishing to retake their post check can. They have a two week window to do so. The only caveat is that it must be done in school (under supervision) and in their own time (break, dinner after school). This is to foster a growth mindset. ‘Student endorsement of mastery goals and engagement in effort – makes them more likely to change and then retain correct knowledge’. (Taylor, Kowalski and Bennett 2010)


A final check I could add in is the same sheet I gave at the start of the topic and call it what do you now know about … Limestone chemistry (this is something I have yet to try in this approach).

Final thoughts

I don’t give them a grade. I don’t judge them, I only say if its amber or red ‘What are you going to do about it’? I want them to take responsibility for their learning!

I provide help during the lessons and make myself available at breaks, dinner before or after school and they have my email if they wish to contact me. If they are willing to give up their time to help with their education I am more than happy to help. I want to show if they are prepared to make the effort I will be there for them.

I am trying to give as many opportunities for my students to test themselves in a low stakes setting. I want to improve their storage and retrieval strength, and become more confident/prepared and less stressed when it comes to summative (read GCSE exams) tests.

I also want them to see how a system/habit can help them to review work more efficiently and enable them to focus on areas they need to improve on. There is still a lot of work to be done on showing students how to revise, but I am already working on this.

This approach is by no means perfect; I will constantly tinker with the ideas, particularly with the spacing effect in mind. All I can say is that most students like the structure this approach provides as it shows them what they do know and what they don’t know.


2 thoughts on “Guest post: My approach in using cognitive psychology in teaching

  1. Looks like a very interesting concept. Has some similarities to the PiXL approach ‘DTT’ Diagnosis, Therapy, Testing.

    Will be following this with interest.

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