Cognition in Education
reviewed by Philip Molebash - November 30, 2018
Given recent shifts in teaching and learning brought on by content standards reform, such as the Common Core State Standards, Cognition in Education, by Matthew T. McCrudden and Danielle S. McNamara, is a well-timed book that will be useful to a broad educational audience. Since the 2000 publication of the seminal book How People Learn, empirical research on cognition has revealed countless insights into strategies for improving learning. Unfortunately, few of these strategies have made it into teachers classrooms or impacted students study habits. This is largely because few cognitive psychology texts have been written with teachers and/or students directly in mind. In Cognition in Education, McCrudden and McNamara adeptly and succinctly take a giant step to fill this gap in the literature. The book has three main goals: (a) to help readers understand the science and educational relevance of cognitive psychology, (b) to describe what is known about the role cognitive processes play in learning, and (c) to help readers understand how to apply this knowledge from both student and teacher perspectives. Readers will quickly appreciate this understand, describe, and apply approach as they move through the books contents.
There are a number of key features of Cognition in Education that make it useful to a broad audience. For starters, at 130 pages (which includes the glossary, references, and index), the book can be read from cover to cover in a few short hours. Alternatively, if the reader wishes to take in the book more methodically, it is organized into four chapters, each providing valuable takeaways that can stand on their own. It is important to note that the text presents the big ideas and core results of research on cognition without getting too deep into the weeds of this research. At the end of each chapter, the authors provide tangible suggestions for how the strategies can be applied from the perspective of both students and teachers. It is this multi-perspective approach that makes Cognition in Education a powerful and important read for school leaders, teachers, and students alike.
Chapter One, an Introduction to Human Cognition, starts with a bang as the authors quip, Along with death and taxes, learning is ubiquitous (p. 1). This light-hearted approach, connecting to the readers sensibilities through humor and relatable examples, is applied throughout the text. This approach is particularly helpful for a first chapter that is focused on introducing readers to how the mind works and defining key terms, such as sensory memory, working memory, long-term memory, declarative memory, procedural memory, and attention.
Chapter Two, Attention and Preparing to Learn, covers content and strategies that are likely already a part of most readers study habits and/or teaching practices. For example, bolding or underlining text, using contrast in our voice when we teach, and making lessons funny or exciting are common practices in many classrooms. Unfortunately, so too is the rather dated strategy suggested by the authors of using PowerPoint to incorporate fly in bullet points when transitioning from one topic to the next (p. 39). This suggested strategy points to the only flaw that I as a reviewer could find with the book, which is the under- or mis-representation of educational technologies. Oddly, in a chapter focused on how attention can affect learning, an opportunity was missed by the authors to discuss how ubiquitous technologies, particularly smartphones, have the potential to both distract and focus our attention on learning. That said, what is useful about this chapter is its detailed discussion on the use of prequestions to initiate learning experiences, particularly how the act of attempting to answer prequestions, rather than merely reading them, is more beneficial for learning. This takeaway alone makes the chapter worth reading.
Chapter Three, Improving Memory, investigates the benefits of distributed practice and retrieval practice to recall information from memory. I found this chapter to be the most interesting and potentially the most transformative of the four chapters. The authors explanation of the benefits of having a time gap between study episodes (distributed practice) as well as the benefits of attempting to retrieve information from memory (retrieval practice) was eye opening. Many of the suggested strategies make intuitive sense, such as taking breaks between study episodes, but learning about the research that supports this claim and to be offered specific timeframes for how often and how long breaks should be provides the reader with concrete actions and steps to take. Others strategies presented by the authors are less intuitive. For example, I was surprised to learn that rereading text is not as beneficial to learning as making attempts to retrieve information from memory. Similarly, attempting to recall information is more beneficial than attempting to recognize information (e.g., on a practice multiple-choice test). Many other strategies are offered that will be immediately useful to all audiences, making this a must-read chapter.
Chapter Four, Improving Comprehension, focuses on factors that improve the comprehension of text. The Common Cores current focus on building content knowledge through reading informational text makes this a very important chapter. McCrudden and McNamara make a good point that readers of all ages benefit from learning about reading strategies, knowing how to use them, and knowing when to use them to understand text (p. 82). The authors provide detailed discussions of three proven strategies: generating questions, elaborating and explaining text, and completing graphic organizers. Most students do not know how to ask good questions; rather, this is a skill that must be taught. It is thus pleasing to see that this issue is covered at length by the authors. The research that demonstrates the benefits of providing students instruction in generating questions (pp. 84-88) could be game-changing to teaching practice at all levels. This is particularly true given how generating good questions can positively impact the next suggested strategy, elaborating and explaining text, and in particular affect a learners capacity to make inferences. The authors close by exploring how completing graphic organizers can be useful for learning from text. Three main ways of visually organizing information are presented: sequence, hierarchy, and matrix. As with all strategies in the book, each is supported with research and examples.
The book does miss an opportunity to explore the use of technology in the classroom, in particular how technology can play a role in attention and improving memory and comprehension. The authors recognize this and are explicit in their reasoning: We do not do so because we limited this book to techniques that can be implemented inexpensively and with relative ease in the classroom, independently of contemporary technologies (p. 3). The authors go on to explain that there are few technologies that focus on teaching strategies or provide opportunities for adaptive instruction. To the contrary, we are now in an era where technology can be implemented inexpensively and with relative ease, including for the purpose of adaptive instruction and enhancing teaching strategies. McCrudden and McNamara do an excellent job describing the benefits of creating graphic organizers, but by omitting technology from their discussion, they ignore the significant added value offered by technology, such as the ability to make quick adaptations to a graphic organizer or add hyperlinks and notes. With many organizational, note-taking, and writing tools now commonplace in schools, such as Notability, Evernote, and Google Docs, the authors could have devoted an entire chapter to how technology can be used inexpensively and easily to improve learning. Articles and books do exist on this topic, but few use cognitive psychology as the starting point for their discussion.
In closing, I believe Cognition in Education makes a clear and much-needed contribution to the field. The book provides well-validated strategies for improving both teaching and learning, and with key ideas summarized in a concise numbered list at the end of each chapter, readers will want to keep it on their desks for quick reference and guidance.
National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.