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Why does thinking hard about something help students learn it?

Why does thinking hard about something help students learn it?

As a general rule of thumb, cognitive science research suggests that the harder you think about something, the more likely you are to learn it.

Cognitive science is the study of the mental processes involved with acquiring and understanding information. It involves many processes, including perception, memory and problem solving and involves principles from a range of disciplines, such as psychology, linguistics and neuroscience. These principles form the basis for how the brain is able to carry out cognitive processes, and why they are important.

So how can you get your students to think harder? Let’s take a closer look…

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Why does it help to think about something hard?

The human brain has evolved to conserve mental energy wherever possible. So naturally, thinking hard is more difficult, because it requires more cognitive effort. For this reason, students often choose learning strategies that require less effort (such as re-reading or highlighting).

Research suggests that the more cognitive effort students expend on tasks, the more likely it is that their learning will improve. Factors such as whether they are motivated to learn or whether they find a particular task challenging can increase the amount of cognitive effort students are willing to invest into their learning.

How to think hard about something in the classroom
6 ways for students to think harder in the classroom

  1. During retrieval practice…

Retrieval practice is the act of generating an answer to a question, which can be done using techniques such as past papers, flashcards and multiple-choice quizzes. It’s been proven time and time again to be one of the most effective learning strategies.

Retrieval practice helps you think hard because you have to recall specific information to answer the question. This requires a lot of cognitive effort. Research has shown that students had reported more mental effort when using retrieval practice techniques in comparison to re-reading.

  1. During spacing…

Spacing is a learning strategy that suggests that students should spread out their revision sessions when trying to learn information. Essentially, it states that little and often is preferable to a lot at once when it comes to studying.

Spacing helps you think hard because it requires you to recall information just before you forget it. This process consolidates the information into our long-term memory and allows us to remember that information for a longer period of time. Using a spaced revision strategy requires more effort.

  1. During interleaving…

Interleaving is the process of mixing up concepts when revising.

One of the reasons why interleaving helps you think hard is because it requires you to mark the differences between related topics (this is known as "discrimination learning"). Using interleaved studying requires more cognitive effort than blocking, which is the opposite strategy and involves studying material topic by topic.

Blocking doesn’t make students think as hard, as towards the end they can be working on autopilot. The familiarity of a concept can lead to overconfidence and blind spots, whereas with interleaving, students are prompted to think harder about the appropriate strategy for a particular task.

In one study, students were asked to either use an interleaved strategy or a blocked strategy to study for a test. When asked about the difficulty of the task, students who used the interleaved strategy rated it as more difficult than students who used the blocked strategy. Results showed that students who interleaved their studying remembered more information and produced correct solutions more often than students who blocked their studying. This suggests that interleaved revision requires more cognitive effort and results in better performance because of this.

  1. During elaborative interrogation…

Elaborative interrogation is the process of being asked or asking yourself “why” questions, such as “why is this true?” or “why might this be the case?”.

Engaging in elaborative interrogation helps you think hard because it requires you to connect current information with previously-learnt information. Asking “why” questions forces us to think harder about the material, form a deeper understanding of it, and enhances our ability to remember that information in the long-term.

One study showed this by demonstrating that when students read sentences such as “the hungry man got into the car”, they were more likely to remember the sentence at a later date if they used elaborative interrogation to explain why the man got in the car, as opposed to being told the reason by their teacher.

Elaborative interrogation research results

  1. During the Production Effect…

The Production Effect is the idea that doing something with learning material, for example reading it out loud, will help students cement the information into their long-term memory. The Production Effect makes us think hard as in order to produce something, we need to interact with the material in a proactive way.

One study demonstrated the impact of the Production Effect on memory, by showing that students who sang or read information loudly were more likely to remember it than students who read or sang the information aloud in a normal voice, or those who read the same information in silence.

  1. During the Protégé Effect…

The Protégé Effect is the idea that teaching someone else reinforces your own learning and understanding.

Research suggests that students who are told that they are learning material in order to teach it to another student recalled more information that students who were told that they are learning material for a test. They also used more effective learning strategies, such as organising information well and considering how it fits together. Researchers hypothesised that this resulted in information being transferred into long-term memory as implementing the Protégé Effect requires more cognitive effort.

Final Thoughts

Using cognitive science in the classroom can be a highly effective way to improve how students learn. Thinking harder about the learning material can help students optimise their learning and retain more information. Techniques such as retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving, elaborative interrogation, the Production Effect, and the Protégé Effect may offer good guidelines on how best to do so.


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