Cognitive science: what mentors need to know

Cognitive science: what mentors need to know

If you aren’t using evidence, what are you using?

Euclid is noted as saying something along the lines of “there are no new ideas in teaching, but not everybody knows the old ideas”; with an ever-growing swell of interest in (and application of) research evidence in education, it is easy to assume that much of the new wave comes with new concepts but this is an error. The concepts aren’t new – many would simply be referred to as “effective teaching” – but the language that surrounds them might be. A teacher of many years’ experience may have been using a form of dual coding for years without really knowing what it is called and, more importantly, the science behind why it might be working.

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Why Mentors Need to Understand Cognitive Science

Initial Teacher Education (ITE) is now built on the new Core Content Framework (CCF), itself  reverse-engineered from the Early Career Framework (ECF - replaces the old Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) Induction).

The ECF is built around a more obviously referenced evidence-base than the existing Teacher Standards, and as such has been largely welcomed. The proof of its implementation pudding is yet to fully emerge though, as there are some initial digestion issues which need addressing – mainly around portion size.

Many of the statements within the CCF can be viewed through the lens of cognitive science and understanding. A shared understanding of these, both through the terminology and the implementation, is vital to the efficiency and efficacy of their use as a framework for developing teachers in their early stages of development.

Each Teacher Standard statement in the ECF is broken into two aspects:

  • “Learn That” – the basic premise;
  • “Learn How To” – the application through specific activity


What we must remember always is that, like the Teacher Standards, the statements are generic and context-less. One size fits very few, and it is the job of the provider, the host school and the mentor to ensure that statements are interpreted appropriately to enable their implementation within the defined context or domain in which the trainee is developing.

The CCF contains much the same as the ECF, naturally, but with the important regular prefix of phrases such as “receiving clear, effective and consistent mentoring in how…” and “with support from expert colleagues”; no pressure there then for those aiding the development of the novice.

Not only must mentors understand the curriculum framework being used to teach new teachers, they must understand its basis, be able to use its language, apply appropriate contextual nuance and manage the growth curve of the new professional as they travel from pre-service novice status – encompassing fear, naivety, inexperience, possibly – to a position of greater competence; itself a long and under-appreciated journey.

Essentially, the “Learn That” statements that underpin the enactment through theory are the responsibility of the provider in terms of teaching and training. The “Learn How To” become the responsibility of the mentor and direct guide-on-the-side in school placement. How can a mentor or coach effectively implement aligned support of the enactment of theoretical outlines if they themselves don’t fully understand them, or the ways in which they manifest themselves?

This is why shared language is key. Built on mutual understanding, it allows for efficiency of dialogue to ensure it is an effective process. Too often the trainee suffers at the hands of too many discordant voices – a Tower of Babel (or babble!) – presenting a mixed and ineffective swathe of feedback that masquerades under the concept of collaboration and formative dialogue. Collaboration, largely, is a myth glimpsed only in the aftermath of success.

Beyond collaboration as an abstract concept must lie coherence – both internal and external – to ensure that there is a clear awareness of success, as opposed to an ideological view of utopian teacher effectiveness built only on aspiration and hollow words.

Ultimately, if in ITT we expect school-based mentors to offer context-specific developmental advice and exemplify expertise to novice teachers then we must trust them to set appropriate targets, and support them to do so. We don’t want them to change their practice, but we do want them to develop their use of the new language that describes it.

ITT mentors knead the dough that is the trainee, ready to be baked. If they don’t know the ingredients that went into the making of the trainee recipe, or the purpose of combining those ingredients in those quantities, they will not be able to aid the process of the baking itself.


What Cognitive Science Mentors Need to Know

So what are the essential principles and theories of cognitive science that mentors need to know? We think even having a surface level of Spacing, Cognitive Load Theory, Retrieval Practice and Metacognition is key.



This is the idea that spacing out learning is more effective for learning new information. Research has shown that Spacing can improve performance by between 10 and 30%. But how long should we wait to revisit previously learnt material??

In one study, researchers asked students to learn 32 trivia facts, varying the amount of time they had between revision sessions. The study found that the further away the test was, the more students should space out revision sessions.

To learn more about spacing and how to implement this learning strategy, read about this study.


Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice suggests that generating answers to questions, such as multiple choice quizzes, questions, flashcards and brain dumps. The only important point is that this quizzing needs to be low-stakes. This is effective as the act of recalling information actually helps ingrain it further. This means that quizzes don’t just assess learning, they actually accelerate it.

Retrieval practice has consistently been shown to be one of the most effective strategies for learning. One study found that students perform at least 30% better in a final exam when they studied information by reading and retrieval practice compared to when they didn’t use retrieval practice at all.

To learn more about the evidence that backs retrieval practice, read this blog.


Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory highlights that working memory has a limited capacity. It suggests that processing too much information in one go can result in cognitive overload, where the information does not get stored in long-term memory.

Research suggests that you can only retain 7 +/- 2 items at once in our working memory. In order to remember this information in the long term, we need to transfer this information into our long-term memory, which has a much larger capacity than working memory. 

There are a number of strategies that can be based off this principle. These include how we present new information (integrated diagrams, reducing redundancy effect by number of words on our slide, scaffolding support for novices). Arguably, this is the most important learning and memory theory for mentors to know about.

For tips on how to use Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom, check out this blog.



This strategy suggests that mixing up topics is more effective than learning topics in full one at a time.  Research suggests that interleaving revision is a more effective learning strategy than blocking revision, where students revise one topic at a time. In one study, students who interleaved their revision performed 7% better on average in their final exam than students who blocked their revision. An important caveat though: interleaving works when mixing up topics within one subject – not when mixing up subjects themselves.

For more information on the differences between blocking and interleaving, read this blog. If you’re looking for strategies to help interleave your teaching, check out this blog.



Metacognition is our ability to think about our thoughts. It is a highly impactful and cost effective strategy that can be applied to three stages of learning:


Research suggests that students who use metacognitive strategies can improve their performance at school, particular in relation to self-regulation, academic achievement and motivation.


Final Thoughts

Mentors hold a vitally important increasingly complex role in helping develop teachers. The amount of psychological theory that underpins learning that we know is ever-growing. Helping ensure that this vital information is in the hands of those who arguably need it the most is key. Although they are not required (nor would it be practical or even desirable) for them to become experts in this area, a little bit of knowledge can go a long way. With new frameworks taking centre stage, this is true now more than ever.

Do you want to work together with 10 like-minded schools on how to use the best cognitive science research to improve teaching & learning in your school? Join the Cognitive Science Network...


We’d like to thank Henry Sauntson for writing part of this blog. Make sure to follow him at @HenrySauntson


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