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Module: Introduction to cognitive science

Welcome to the professional learning module introducing some key aspects of cognitive science. We hope you find it helpful and informative, and send us any feedback you might have. For the full list of the modules and explanation of how they work, please see here.

This module serves as an introduction to some key aspects and foundational concepts behind cognitive science. As an entire branch of science, there is by necessity a number of topics which we will not be able to include in this module, but we hope that via completing the module and its activities you will acquire a “taste” for cognitive science and choose to complete more modules which will go into a greater depth. There are a number of activities to complete throughout the unit and we have prepared an optional Google form here to help you structure your notes and thoughts throughout the unit. 

  1. Pre-Module Task

Define the following key words to check your prior understanding and then revisit them at the end of the module:


Working Memory

Long Term Memory


2. Introduction

This module serves as a primer for all the other modules you choose to undertake. Cognitive science is a multidisciplinary field with many elements which are brought together under the umbrella of Cognitive Science. At its heart cognitive science attempts to make sense of the human mind and behaviour. There are many researchers in different fields who are looking for the answer as to how the mind works and no single approach is likely to be successful in demonstrating this. There is theoretical disagreement on the basic terminology and unlike science there are no concrete laws like Newton’s Laws of Motion (Bermúdez 2010). This makes it challenging to state anything with certainty but a teacher engaged with the latest research is more likely to make more informed decisions about lesson and curriculum design that are more favourable to how we learn.  

The next challenge as Smith and Firth (2018) write is,

“this knowledge must be applied to a particular educational context by you, the teacher.”

Understanding your context is essential because as Dylan Wiliam suggests ““what works?” is not the right question because everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere, so what’s interesting, what’s important in education is: “Under what conditions does this work?”.

Understanding the conditions in which a technique is going to work is what every teacher in their own context has to establish. On one day something you do might “work” but on another day it doesn’t.  Cognitive science is engaged in uncovering ideas and concepts which are widely applicable. It could be true that retrieval practice, SLOP or spacing aren’t effective for every student or every concept, but they are for the overwhelming majority.

To begin with we will consider 2 constituent parts of your Memory:, the Working Memory (WM) and Long Term Memory (LMT). Willingham writes that the WM is the site of conscious thought or “it holds the stuff you are thinking about” (Willingham 2009). The LTM has been described as an infinite store of information (Willingham 2009) but as Pashler and Carrier (1996) write, “The capacity of the long term memory is obviously vast, although exceedingly difficult to quantify”. Efrat Furst’s suggestion that information stored in LTM could be used by the learner in the future is quite pertinent in an educational setting. If learners are unable to do anything with what they have learned then what is the point of learning it?

This is a useful model for a teacher to be familiar with because of the different characteristics of the WM and LTM. If the aim is for learners to use information in their LTM in the future then how can we devise sequences of learning that maximise learning and support remembering?

Knowing the characteristics of WM and LTM is a good starting point:

WM Characteristics
Limited capacity
Temporary store of information
Information is live and can be manipulated
Distraction can empty it
Retrieves relevant information from the Long Term Memory (LTM)
Able to process visual and auditory information simultaneously
LTM Characteristics
Thought to have unlimited capacity
Organisation of information into schema
Construction of models in the mind but not thought to have a physical existence
Schema formation is more organised in an expert compared to a novice
Memory is reconstructive in nature and whenever a memory is activated it can be altered.

(Gathercole & Alloway 2007; Sweller 2019 et al; Sumeracki, Weinstein & Caviglioli 2019)

3. What are WM and LTM?

Read this blog post by Efrat Furst and consider the following:

  • What does Efrat state are the key features of the WM and what is essential for LTM storage?
  • What is deep processing and how can you encourage this in your classroom?
  • How would the model of building long term memory representations effect your lesson planning?
  • Explain what happens in the WM as a learner becomes a master in that topic. Why is this desirable?  

Bjork and Vanhuele (1992) write that the retrieval and storage of information in our memory is not always a straightforward process. Read the paragraphs below and consider the following questions:

(Bjork & Vanhuele 1992 – accessed here)

Why do you think that learners are not able to recall information they have done so previously?

What factors do you think might impact on retrieval of information in your classroom?

4. What is attention?

Read this webpage and if you have time listen to the podcast where Learning Scientist, Megan Sumeracki, interviews CogSciSci member Michael Hobbiss. Questions you can use to frame your thinking are:

  • How does Mike suggest that attention is captured?
  • How can you minimise the environmental influences that can affect attention in the classroom and at home?
  • Mike’s work shows some interesting results but why is it important to be cautious with the findings?In his book ‘Natural Born Learners’ Alex Beard wrote that “Attention is the holy grail of teaching”. Why do you think attention is so important in the learning process?

5. Schema

In the final part of this module we will focus on what a schema is and schema formation. Weinstein, Sumeracki and Caviglioli (2018) define a schema as, “ Pre-determined categorisations of the world and the behaviour of objects and people.” This meaningful information is stored in schemata in our LTM (Smith & Firth 2018) and is not based on discrete pieces of information that sit in isolation but in complex webs which are influenced by emotional and environmental cues. If you are feeling sad you might refer to a memory and interpret it in a different way to when you might feel happy. This adds yet more complexity to Cognitive Science.

Read David Didau’s explanation of Schema here and consider the following questions:

  • How does Didua demonstrate the formation of a complex schema?
  • How do you think your teaching can support learners retrieving schemata effortlessly and automatically?
  • As a teacher how could you organise your teaching to support complex schema formation?

Organising information in schemata does seem to be important. In his book Memory, Parkin (1992) cites a classic study carried out by Chi (1978) in which she examined the ability of child chess experts and adult chess novices on a conventional memory span task and a task involving memory of chessboard positions. The results showed that on the conventional memory test the adults did better but on the memory of the chessboard positions the expert children outperformed the adults. It does demonstrate that knowledge rather than age is critical in determining memory.

  • Is a piece of research like this useful in helping you inform your planning?

6. Summary

  • Cognitive Science is a complex, multidisciplinary field which is trying to understand how the mind works.
  • The characteristics of LTM and WM are useful to know in planning lessons.
  • Attention is a limited resource and focusing attention is essential for memory formation.
  • Schema are mental representations of information that form in the LTM. An expert has a more organised schema than a novice which enables them to access information more quickly.

7. End of module task

As with all modules, there is a task at the end. This task should serve not only to consolidate the work you have done throughout the module, but is also a way for other teachers to see how you have applied and used the things you have learnt. We would like to publish your task when you are finished, but if you would rather that we didn’t then please just let us know when you submit it.

Please choose a task from the below and send it to

  • Describe how you have used the characteristics of Long Term Memory and Working Memory to plan a lesson.
  • Give a concrete example of how you have developed a resource to focus student attention.
  • Look for a piece of research on Schema formation. Summarise the research and state how it has helped inform your teaching.

If you have any feedback for us, you can submit it anonymously here.


Bermudez, J.L. (2010) Cognitive Science. An Introduction to the Science of the Mind. (2nd Edition) New York. Cambridge University Press

Bjork, R. & Vanhuele, M. (1992) Retrieval Inhibition and Related Adaptive Peculiarities of Human Memory. Advances in Consumer Research [accessed 8.9.19)

Beard, A. (2018) Natural Born learners. Our incredible capacity to learn and how we can harness it. London. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Didau, D. (2018) How to Explain Schema [accessed 9.8.19]

Gathercole, S and Alloway, T. (2007) Understanding Working Memory. A classroom guide. Harcourt Assessment.

Learning Scientists & Hobbiss, M. (2018)  Podcast on Attention [Accessed 8.8.19]

Parkin, A,J. (1993) Memory. Phenomena, Experiment and Theory. Oxford. Blackwell Publishers.

Smith, M. & Firth, J. (2018) Psychology in the Classroom. Oxford. Routledge.

Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J.J.G. & Paas, F. Educ Psychol Rev (2019) 31: 261.

Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M. & Caviglioli, O. (2018) Understanding How We Learn. Oxford. Routledge.

Wiliam, D. (2006) Asessment for learning:why, what and how? Cambridge Assessment Network talk [accessed 9.8.2019]

Willingham, D. (2017) A Mental Model of the Learner: Teaching the Basic Science of Educational Psychology to Future Teachers. International Mind, Brain, and Education Society Volume 11 – number 4 [accessed 8.8.19]


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