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Applying the Science of Learning:

Using the Principles of Cognitive Psychology

To Enhance Teaching and Learning


Diane F. Halpern

California State University, San Bernardino





Diane F. Halpern

Department of Psychology

California State University, San Bernardino

5500 University Parkway

San Bernardino, CA 92407-2397


Phone: 909/880-5578

Fax: 909/880-7003

Applying the Science of Learning:

Using the Principles of Cognitive Psychology

To Enhance Teaching and Learning


Thank you for inviting me to join you in your deliberations about ways to apply principles from the science of learning to enhance teaching and learning. I am delighted and honored to be here. Unfortunately, you gave me an almost impossible assignment—in about five minutes, I am supposed to provide a useful summary of what we know about human learning and cognition with suggestions for future research. In the short time allocated, I plan to share some of my excitement about advancements in the learning sciences with you and suggest some ways to translate our knowledge of human cognition into meaningful school reform with the hope that you will continue to explore the findings and ideas at some later time.

My academic area is cognitive psychology.  Cognitive psychology is the empirical branch of psychology that deals with questions about how people think, learn, and remember.  Cognitive psychologists study how people acquire, utilize, organize, and retrieve information. We study topics like memory, decision making, problem identification and solving, critical thinking, and reasoning.  It is clear that a successful pedagogy that can serve as a basis for the enhancement of learning will have to incorporate ideas about the way in which learners organize knowledge and internally represent it, and the way these representations change and resist change when new information is encountered. Despite all of the gains that we have made in understanding what happens when people learn, most teachers “have gained relatively little from cognitive psychology” (Donald Schoen, The Reflective Practitioner, 1983).  It seems that even cognitive psychologists apply very little of what they know about their academic discipline to their teaching.  The gap between empirically validated theory and practice is wide.  This idea first came to me as I sat through a deadly dull three-hour lecture on the shortness of the human attention span. 

          Here are a few examples of cognitive principles that should be guiding our design of learning activities:    

1. What and how much gets learned in any situation depends heavily on prior knowledge and experience.  Psychologists use the term “construction of knowledge” because each learner builds meaning using what is already known. For example, in an explanation of this principle in “How People Learn,” we are told about a fish who learns about the dry world from a bird. When the bird describes beings who can walk upright and breathe air, the fish imagines fish-looking people walking on their tails, with both gills surrounded with water and lungs filled with air. The comprehension process is similar to that used when children learn that the world is round; they replace their pancake-shaped view of the earth with a ball that has been cut in half, so that we can walk on the flat cut surface without falling off.  In other words, the best predictor of what is learned from at the completion of a lesson, course, or program of study is what the learner thinks and knows at the start of the lesson, course, or program of study.

          2.   We maintain mental models (beliefs) for a wide variety of complex phenomena including those we encounter in the physical world (e.g., moving objects) and social world (e.g., stereotypes about members of groups) because, for the most part, they make sense to us.  Our models of the world “work,” and thus are difficult to change. Individuals beliefs about the world are organized into mental models that make sense and “work”--that is, do a reasonably good job in their day-to-day life.

Consider this: In a random telephone survey conducted by the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois, 21% of the over 2000 adults who responded to the survey believe that the sun resolves around the earth, and an additional 7% did not know which revolves around which.  Didn’t most of these adults learn somewhere that for over 400 years the scientific community unanimously determined that the earth revolves around the sun?  Although we cannot be sure, I would guess that most of these adults learned this fact, but never altered their mental models of planetary motion because their everyday observations don’t support it.  We see the sun “moving” across the sky as morning turns into night.  The earth-centric view of the universe makes sense according to the naive model that is easily constructed and tested and confirmed on a daily basis.   In order to change an individual’s mental model, we need to design instruction so that the errors in naive models are exposed and the benefits of the new model are obvious. Cognitive psychologists and others have diagnostic assessment models that provide information about each learner’s understanding, and based on the way learners respond to questions designed to probe their understanding, teachers can redirect learning activities that correct these errors.

3.          Learning is influenced by our students’ and our own epistemologies (theories about learning).  Academic motivation is related to beliefs about learning.

Many students believe that they cannot “do math,” or understand science, or write poetry, or succeed in some other academic discipline. When you ask them about this belief, you find that what they really are saying is that they believe that learning should be easy, but when they learn in these disciplines, it is effortful. What they don’t know is that learning and remembering involve multiple, interdependent processes.  Some types of learning occur implicitly, that is without conscious awareness.  Other types of learning are very easy, and other types of learning are effortful, perhaps even painful and aversive, such as learning the names of the facial nerves or how to “do” long division.  It is only after they invest in the hard work of learning that additional learning in these fields becomes easy and more automatic. There is no single set of learning principles that will always work.  If I were learning how to ride a unicycle, I would need to practice on a unicycle, no amount of expert explanation would substitute for my getting on the unicycle and pedaling; but I do not have to experience different events in history in order to “know” them.  The best way to learn and recall something will depend, in part, on what it is you want to learn and recall as well as what you already know. 

4.          Experience alone is a poor teacher. There are countless examples where what we learn from experience is, in fact, systematically wrong.  For example, most jurists believe that they can tell from a person’s demeanor whether she or he is telling the truth.  In fact, they cannot.  Therapists believe that a particular intervention has worked when a client improves after that intervention; of course, if most clients enter therapy at times of crisis, then improvement is likely no matter what intervention is taken because of the ubiquitous effect of regression to the mean.  If a client does not improve, then therapists reason that he or she was too sick to benefit from the good treatment.  There are countless examples of this sort of erroneous thinking, where our beliefs about the world are maintained and strengthened despite the fact that they are wrong.  We end up with great confidence in our erroneous beliefs. 

This is important because there is a popular belief that all learning and learning assessments should be “authentic”--a term that I don’t particularly like. I’d settle for phony learning if what was learned met the tests of long-term retention, retrieval when needed, and flexible recall and use of the information that was learned so it can be used creatively—regardless of how it was learned. Authentic situations are often not optimal for good learning. What is missing from most authentic situations and from most real-life situations is systematic and corrective feedback about the consequences of various actions.  When jurists have many experiences where they believe that they can tell if someone is lying and they receive feedback as to whether or not the individual is lying, they can learn that they are not good judges of truth telling.  In real life, the systematic feedback is usually missing, so they continue to believe that they are good at the task of identifying liars when, in fact, they are not.  Similarly, in the absence of reliable and regular feedback, we tend to believe that our interpretations of social events are accurate or the reasoning behind a political belief system is valid when it may not be.

Let me quickly list a few more examples of ways that can be applying cognitive principles to our teaching and learning.


  • Virtually all science courses, especially at the introductory level, involve a lecture portion where a lone teacher mostly talks (and writes on the board) and learners take notes—a satisfactory arrangement for learning if the desired outcome is to produce learners who can repeat or recognize the information presented, but one of the worst arrangements for the promotion of in-depth understanding. In this example, the problem is that both the faculty and students believe that achieving a high score on a recognition test (i.e., multiple choice exam in which the questions tap lower level cognitive processes) or a test that requires only repetition of course material is evidence of “good learning.” Unfortunately, it is possible for students to achieve a high score on tests like these and not be able to recognize that a concept applies in a slightly altered context or be able to apply a concept at some time in the future.




  • Laboratory exercises are mostly “canned,” requiring very little original thought by the learners and few surprises for anyone, thus bearing little resemblance to the cognitive processes needed in real research laboratories. The more creative aspects of research, including the generation of a genuine question and the multiple decision points encountered in the research process are invisible to students in most laboratory courses, especially at the introductory level, where the vast majority of college students complete their formal science education. It is impossible to estimate the number of potential scientists and scientifically informed citizens who are lost at this level because they fail to see any excitement in research, but there are many reasons to believe that it is a large number.
  • AsAsAsAsking learners to recall some information leads to selective “forgetting” for other related information that they were not asked to recall. Thus, the act of remembering strengthens some memory traces and weakens others, a fact that should influence how we test students. Few college faculty are aware of this effect and inadvertently are creating learning activities that actually cause forgetting for information that want students to retain. When students are tested frequently, they receive higher scores than students who are tested infrequently, thus creating the impression that frequent testing is a sound educational practice. Conscientious professors will often use frequent testing because they believe that the high scores achieved on these tests show that frequent testing is a sound educational practice. But, frequent testing also leads to overconfidence in learners who erroneously believe that their long-term retention for the information will be better than it actually is, a belief that should lead them to put less time and effort into studying the material for future recall This is another example where the short-term benefits of an educational practice masks the long-term detriments associated with it. 

Teaching for Transfer

The sole reason why we have schools and universities, that is formal settings designed for learning activities is that we expect that learning will transfer.  Information learned in one context can transfer to a different context, but we need to teach in ways that encourage transfer.  Because of my interest in and commitment to helping students improve their ability to think critically, this is one topic about which I have very strong feelings.  The purpose of formal education is transfer.  We teach students how to write and think well in the belief that they will use these skills when they are not in school.  The truth is sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. 

Let’s consider a simple concept like correlation.  Most students who have taken courses in the social and behavioral sciences or statistics can tell you that a correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean that one caused the change in the other.  Most students who have had course work on this topic can compute a correlation coefficient for a set of data and provide examples of positive and negatively correlated variables.  They can explain the oft-cited example that as the number of churches increases in a city so does the number of prostitutes, but that this relationship doesn’t mean that the increase in number of churches caused the increase in number of prostitutes.  But what happens when they are sitting at their kitchen table and read in the newspaper about a study that found that students who attended preschool were better readers by the end of first grade? Many of these same students don’t recognize the likelihood that attending preschool did not necessarily cause the first graders to be better readers.  But our students can be taught to recognize and apply concepts, like correlational reasoning, that are learned in school in real world settings. 

The frequent use of real-life examples will help students to recognize these principles when they encounter them out of school, especially when a wide variety of examples are used and informative feedback is provided.  There is a strong research base that supports this statement.  Of course, a teacher who returns to the same topic with real life examples throughout the semester will “cover” less material than one who goes on to another topic as soon as her students can compute the correlation coefficient and explain that correlation is not cause.  We need to give more thought to what we want students to know and be able to do when they finish our courses.



With some consideration of what sort of information students will need to know and in what settings, principles to enhance transfer and retrieval can be incorporated into every learning activity.

Assessing Learning Outcomes

We need assessments of learning that are consistent with their intended use. Assessment is a term with multiple meanings. Assessment designed to provide feedback that will improve teaching and learning is different from assessment for the purpose of certifying a level of knowledge or skill for the learner, which is also different from assessment for the purpose of evaluating the instructor or the instructor’s system or state. I believe that much of the heated debate over assessment would be resolved if those involved in the debate realized that they are often talking about assessment for different purposes and the type of assessment needs to match its intended use.

Research Needed


          We need research that can “scale up,” by that I mean research designs for large and diverse groups of learners, multiple researchers and teachers, with at least a quasi-randomized design that will allow stronger causal inferences than most educational research designs. Educational research needs to be funded for longer periods of time so that long-term retention and transfer can be assessed. Long-term retention and transfer are the reasons for education, but we cannot determine the effectiveness of any educational application or intervention if the funding runs out before the students leap the many educational gaps, where increasing numbers are unable to bridge from high school to postsecondary school and from school to work.

          We need to invest in dissemination projects with as much care and planning as we put into the research itself. There need to be rewards for good educational practices along with positive outcomes for researchers and teachers who are willing to take risks, even when the knowledge gained from those risks is that some method did not work as hoped.

There are, of course, numerous other examples that I could have used to make my point that knowledge of how people learn, think, and remember should at the heart of educational reform.  I am happy to provide suggested readings for anyone who would like to learn more or check my conclusion that, with appropriate instruction, we can improve how people learn, remember, and think.

In closing, I’d like to add that enhancing student learning is the most important task we face as a society. Work place and citizenship skills are more complex that ever before; a thinking, educated citizenry is our best hope for the future. We can do a better job of educating our country’s most precious commodity--smart, educated adults who can cope with and chart the direction of the change.  The rate at which knowledge has been growing is exponential and the most valued asset of any society in the coming decades is a knowledgeable, thinking citizenry--human capital is our wisest investment. More than ever, we need to prepare students to learn efficiently and to think critically, so that the United States can remain competitive and cooperative in the 21st century. 



An annotated reference list and numerous related documents can be found at


I thank the Spencer Foundation and Marshall-Reynolds Trust for their support of a retreat on “Applying the Science of Learning.”