Author Archives: Jonathan Firth

Dual coding and the classroom⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

'D is for dragon?' Combining verbal learning with a picture should lead to more successful recall, according to dual coding theory. Image source  here .

'D is for dragon?' Combining verbal learning with a picture should lead to more successful recall, according to dual coding theory. Image source here.

Despite its long history, visual imagery has at times been neglected in the study of memory and learning. Behaviourist psychologist J. B. Watson considered it to be unimportant, with mental images seen as mere shadows or 'ghosts' of the verbal behaviour involved in language (Paivio, 1969), and visual processing was absent from the classic ‘modal’ model of short-term and long-term memory. However, from the late 1960s onwards, researchers such as Gordon Bower and Allan Paivio began to promote its use as a study strategy, and explore the psychology behind it.

The theory

Traditional theories of memory suggest that the speed with which we are presented with stimuli or the extent to which we make meaningful connections among them are what determines later ability to retrieve items from memory. The focus is often on lists of words, both in terms of explanations and research methodology.

Dual coding theory (DCT) sees this view as over-simplistic, instead arguing that the modality via which information is processed is of lasting significance to whether it is remembered or not. It suggests that when objects and events are encoded to memory, the mind processes two main types of stimuli - verbal and non-verbal (the latter including both images and other non-verbal stimuli such as sounds and movements).

These are then separately represented in the mind as two main types of mental structure - verbal items which Paivio and colleagues label 'logogens', and visual-based items which they label 'imagens' (Paivio, 1986). There are also mental links or 'referential connections' between these.

A number of studies have suggested that images can be better remembered than words, a phenomenon known as the picture superiority effect. Bower (1972) was one of the first to show that a dynamic visual image including two images can be better remembered than either item independently. A range of studies have found that items presented as pictures tend to be better remembered than the same items presented as words, while Paivio and Csapo (1973) found that the picture superiority effect is due in part to the superiority of the mental image over the word in terms of its rich meaningful content.

However, DCT does more than just encourage the use of pictures. It suggests that both pictures and words, when encoded together, will create a stronger memory trace, including two distinct types of representation. When viewing an image, people spontaneously think of the word, thus gaining the benefit of dual coding in most picture superiority experiments. In addition, it will be easier to retrieve the item from memory, as either the logogen or the imagen could provide sufficient information to trigger retrieval of an episodic memory.

There may be more aspects to a memory trace than the two described by Paivio and colleagues. A study by Wammes et al. (2016) looked specifically at the role of drawing as a mnemonic strategy. Their primary methodology was to read out list of words and ask participants to either write or draw the item named. In a series of experiments they found that drawing (rather than written note taking) had a powerful mnemonic effect, and one that cannot be explained purely by picture superiority or by other obvious factors such as more meaningful processing. They suggested that drawing promotes the integration of the verbal meaning of a memory trace with its visual and motor representations. This has become known as the 'drawing effect'.

Links with other theories

Although it is more concerned with long-term memory than with working memory, DCT seems to fit well with the work of Baddeley and colleagues, who suggest that in short term processing, too, we have distinct storage and processing systems for visual and verbal material. More recently, a form of episodic working memory system was later added to their theory. These are thought to link to the corresponding long-term stores of visual and verbal semantic long-term and to episodic long-term memory, respectively (e.g. Baddeley, 2000).

Biologically, the hippocampus appears to play an important role in long-term memory for visualisation and route planning, and may therefore be involved in the way the brain represents imagens. Maguire et al. (2006) found that this brain area was larger in volume among London taxi drivers than in a comparable group of bus drivers, and the taxi drivers also did better on a visual test of local landmarks. However, it was not all good news for the taxi-drivers - they performed worse on a test involving visualisation of novel items. This suggests that while our visual abilities may be able to adapt to circumstances due to neuroplasticity, the resulting specialisation may have a cost in terms of the ability to perform new tasks in the same domain.


As a technique for boosting memory, DCT has broad potential applications in a range of areas, most obviously education. It suggests that learning new information via both words and images (which could include experimental apparatus or short videos, as well as pictures) will be more successful than via words alone. Diagrams in notes or on whiteboards and worksheets are also important. Given the heavily verbal nature of school and university learning, this seems to imply that more use should be made of images. Clark and Paivio (1991) note that images contain important properties and that complexities that can 'fade' when represented verbally, including movement and the interrelation of parts.

Both DCT and the drawing effect suggest that making use of multiple means of encoding and representing information leads to a better-integrated and more robust mental representation, and this may also lead to better transfer in future. This is in contrast to the widely held - but scientifically unsupported - view that learners should identify a preferred learning style (see the work of Daniel Willingham for more about why that idea has been discredited).


Tips for learning how to study using dual coding from the Learning Scientists.

Allan Paivio's book with Mark Sadoski on how DCT applies to reading and writing.

Classroom examples by Kate Jones, author of ‘Love to Teach’.


Baddeley, A. (2000). The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory?. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(11), 417-423.

Bower, G.H. (1972). Mental imagery and associative learning. In L. Gregg (Ed.), Cognition in learning and memory, pp. 51-88. New York: Wiley.

Clark, J. M., and Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory and education. Educational Psychology Review, 3(3), 149-210.

Maguire, E. A., Woollett, K., and Spiers, H. J. (2006). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus, 16(12), 1091-1101.

Paivio, A. (1969). Mental imagery in associative learning and memory. Psychological Review, 76(3), 241.

Paivio, A. (1986). Mental representations: A dual-coding approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paivio, A., & Csapo, K. (1973). Picture superiority in free recall: Imagery or dual coding?. Cognitive Psychology, 5(2), 176–206.

Wammes, J. D., Meade, M. E., and Fernandes, M. A. (2016). The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69(9), 1752-1776.

What should students focus on? Evidence-based study habits⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Plans and checklists are useful, but don’t assume that you have learned something after a single study session. Image via  Pixabay .

Plans and checklists are useful, but don’t assume that you have learned something after a single study session. Image via Pixabay.

A lot of the study advice that students and school pupils get is next to useless. Some is actually counterproductive, includes the learning myths, such as finding a ‘learning style’ (learning styles actually don’t exist - but this doesn’t stop many schools from pushing the idea relentlessly!)

In addition, advice often unhelpfully focuses on getting students to sit down and study, without actually telling them how to do so effectively. All too often, study tips focus on making study plans, starting early, drinking lots of water, or just generally working harder.

Cognitive psychology has shown that in order to use your study time effectively, you should pay more attention to what you do during your study sessions. In other words, it’s not just the amount of practice that counts, but how you do it.

To take an analogy that I sometimes use in lectures, imagine a basketball player throwing the ball at the basket again and again, and missing again and again. That player would get a lot further if he or she focused on technique, rather than just ‘working hard’.

Flawed techniques

These are some of the flawed study techniques that are commonly used by school pupils and university students (Hartwig & Dunlosky, 2012):

  • Re-reading notes

  • Skim reading chapters of textbooks

  • Highlighting words or sections

Unfortunately, these techniques are ineffective ways to learn — at times they are almost useless. For example, several research studies (e.g. Dunlosky et al, 2013; Yik et al, 2018) have shown that highlighting or underlining notes usually makes no difference to how much is recalled (and, in case you were wondering, neither does using different colours of pens!).

What would be considerably more effective would be:

  • Writing summaries of notes from memory, preferably after a delay (so the summary is not written verbatim from working memory).

  • Re-reading after a delay, and testing yourself.

  • Identifying key terms and phrases, and writing these onto index cards in order to check your memory of them later.

When and where to study

We can apply science to how the study sessions take place, too. Consider the following, also very common among most students:

  • Finding one place to study and doing all your work there.

  • Drinking 6-8 glasses of water a day as you study.

  • Studying with friends.

  • Long study sessions (several hours at a time) on a single topic.

None of these are the best way to learn. Research has shown that studying in multiple places is actually more helpful (Smith et al, 1978) – if the context of the learning doesn’t vary, it becomes harder to remember the information elsewhere (e.g. in an exam hall). Water won’t make much difference unless you are actually dehydrated (too much will lead to you needing the toilet, making it harder to concentrate). And friends will simply distract you.

Long study sessions should be avoided. Yes, you may need to study quite a lot in order to learn the key ideas from your course. But, as with exercise, this is best split into shorter, more intensive bursts. Try doing several 20-minute sessions (sometimes called ‘pomodoros’), covering a single part of a topic in each. Then take a break, and when you come back, test yourself on the information — this can be as simple as writing down everything you can remember on a piece of paper.


Finally, cognitive psychology research has shown that people tend to underestimate how rapidly forgetting takes place (Yan et al, 2016). It’s tempting to think that topics and information can be ticked off a study plan as “done”. However, what if you have forgotten most of it after a week?

A much more effective approach is to allocate at least one, and preferable 2-3 sessions in your overall study time where you will return to an earlier topic. Schedule these to take place at least a day or two after the first revision session. Again, test yourself, because not only will this highlight areas that you have forgotten, the test itself will help to consolidate the information in your memory.

Related post – what to do with a week to go until your exam

Link to book — How to learn - effective study and revision methods for any course


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

Hartwig, M. K., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement?. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19(1), 126-134.

Smith, S. M., Glenberg, A., & Bjork, R. A. (1978). Environmental context and human memory. Memory & Cognition, 6(4), 342-353.

Yan, V. X., Clark, C. M., & Bjork, R. A. (2016). Memory and metamemory considerations in the instruction of human beings revisited: Implications for optimizing online learning. In J. C. Horvath, J. Lodge, & J. Hattie (Eds). From the laboratory to the classroom: Translating science of learning for teachers (pp. 61-78). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Yik, N. C., Yi, L. X., Somadam, S. T. N., Amirudin, A. E. B., & Ananthan, S. (2018). Effect of Highlighting Text on Concentration, Memory and Attention Among Undergraduate Medical Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. American Journal of Educational Science, 4(4), 149-158.

Psychology in the Classroom – One Year Later⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth


Psychology in the Classroom: A Teacher's Guide to What Works came out around this time last year. Co-authored with Marc Smith and aimed at both new and experienced teachers, it’s a guide to how psychology research on areas such as memory, creativity and motivation can be applied to classroom practice.

Background to the book

In the run up to working on this book, I had become increasingly interested in applying cognitive psychology to education. Although I have a degree in Psychology and had been teaching the subject at school level since the early 2000s, I hadn’t initially applied it to my teaching practice. However, as time went on my reading had increasingly focused on areas of psychology that have a link to education, and found myself enjoying teaching these topics, too. Some of the areas that I developed a particular interest in include:

  • Memory

  • Intelligence

  • Stress

  • Metacognition

As time went on I focused particularly on long-term memory, and became very enthusiastic about the potential of techniques such as the spacing effect. I began to write blog posts and give talks about how teachers could be making use of memory-informed techniques to make learning more effective.

How the book got started

The book came about partly thanks to a third teacher, Mark Healy, who co-presented a keynote with me at the Association for the Teaching of Psychology in Scotland on the topic of applying research to teaching. He also presented with Marc Smith at ResearchEd Scotland in 2015. Realising that we had shared interests and compatible areas of expertise, we initially planned to write the book together, and all three of us are on the first draft of the publishing proposal. However, Mark Healy pulled out due to other commitments, and so Marc Smith and I progressed with the book ourselves. We submitted the proposal to Routledge alongside Marc’s proposal for ‘The Emotional Learner’, and both books were accepted.

What the book is about

Although we are psychology teachers, this is not a book for psychology teachers or students! Instead, the main purpose of the book is to help teachers apply psychology research to learning, and to all aspects of classroom practice. As we put it in the introduction:

“Popular ideas about how people learn and behave – including some older scientific theories – can be scrutinised and compared to current research knowledge. Your own professional knowledge of learning and thinking can be developed and informed by this process.”

We feel very strongly that an understanding of how learners think, remember can help us to become more effective professionals. While good teaching can certainly happen without reading up on psychology, making good choices will be less of a haphazard process for those who engage with the evidence (perhaps helping to explain the common feeling of NQTs that they are floundering, unsure what they are supposed to do or why). Indeed, one important area of psychology research that we discuss in the book is that teacher and learner intuitions about ‘what works’ are often flawed.

However, this knowledge doesn’t override teacher professionalism. Again, to quote from our introduction to the book:

“This knowledge must be applied to a particular educational context by you, the teacher. A solid understanding of the mind is therefore a part of our professionalism, but only a part. Informing ourselves about psychological and educational research can be an empowering force, allowing us to make judgements confidently and in full knowledge of both the facts and the uncertainties highlighted by current psychological research.”

We were also determined from the outset that the book would be useful. There is far too much theory for the sake of it in education. Each chapter of the book includes the following:

  • Basic concepts about the topic

  • One or more theories

  • How to apply the concepts and theories to teaching

Practical applications of the psychological knowledge were therefore built into our structure from the outset. We explain how concepts such as the spacing effect and intrinsic motivation can inform teacher choices in specific situations such as planning, materials design, homework setting, and many more.

The writing process

How did we write the book? The chapter structure allowed us to simply divide the topics between us, with each of us being the lead writer for four out of the eight chapters. This actually worked out really well (I think), because my main interests and expertise focus on cognitive processes and Marc’s cover emotions, mindsets and so forth (although there is a lot of overlap in our interests, too). We thus divided up the chapters as follows:

  • Memory and understanding (JF)

  • Cognition (JF)

  • Self theories (MS)

  • Creativity (JF)

  • Emotions (MS)

  • Resilience, buoyancy and grit (MS)

  • Motivation (MS)

  • Independent learning (JF)

At the outset I would have expected the last chapter to be the toughest to write, but it was actually quite straightforward, drawing on research by the likes of Janet Metcalfe and Robert Bjork, and fitting well with my own experience of guiding older pupils who are working towards exams.

In fact it was the chapter on creativity that I found hardest. As I delved further into the research it became clear that this is an area where there is a lot of theoretical disagreement even on basic terminology, and where the practical strategies that many people find useful (e.g. brainstorming or incubation) don’t sit well with the evidence that creativity is highly domain specific. In short, there is something of a skills v’s knowledge dichotomy. I tried to strike a balance, noting the importance of domain-based knowledge if new ideas are to be creatively transferred from one context to another, but also recognising that creative skills and habits can be beneficial. The skills aspect could explain why you can have two learners with similar levels of knowledge, but one can be more creative (or more successfully creative) than the other.


I’ve been really delighted with the reception that the book has received. It was exciting to see it on the book stand at the ResearchEd national conference in London, and I’ve had a great many kind and supportive comments on Twitter. It’s been lovely to hear from readers around the world, from as far afield as Iran and Pakistan.

A review by the Chartered College of Teaching said of the book:

"It brings robust, relevant and recent research about psychology to life through the lens of experienced teachers and researchers of psychology by explaining clearly and showing how concepts can impact teaching in the classroom. I read this book to reinforce my understanding of how pupils learn, and to uncover further aspects of cognitive science that would assist my development as a teacher. This book delivered in both respects, and the clarity of the writing made it an enjoyable read. I can imagine teachers will be able to make use of the ideas contained readily." (Read more).

What next?

More writing and sharing ideas! Marc is working hard on a number of writing projects — you can see one of his recent articles for The Guardian here, and he has a regular column in the TES. His book The Emotional Learner has recently been translated into Spanish.

I have written a new revision guide for Scotland’s Higher Psychology, drawing on similar principles of memory and independent learning. I’ve also recently written another book for Routledge, ‘The Teacher's Guide to Research: Engaging with, Applying and Conducting Research in the Classroom’. This will be out in June 2019, and explains more about how teachers can find, apply, evaluate research in the classroom, and set up research projects of their own.

Both of us have also written A-Level Psychology content for the Seneca online revision platform.

Read more about the book on the Routledge website here.

Interleaving – using it in the classroom⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Interleaving images of animals can be a more effective way to learn what a species looks like than ‘blocking’ examples. Image via

Interleaving images of animals can be a more effective way to learn what a species looks like than ‘blocking’ examples. Image via

There have been a lot of discussions about interleaving and spacing on Twitter this week, which is great. It’s always good to see teachers engaging with research, asking questions, and trying to make their practice evidence informed.

Some key principles to be aware of

As I have just been working on a systematic review of research into interleaving, I though I’d share a couple of things that I think are easily overlooked when people apply interleaving to their classroom practice (including by me, when I first came across the idea!).

- Interleaving seems to be beneficial because it allows learners to contrast different problems or examples, and/or because they pay more attention (they mindwander less) compared to seeing repetitive types of problems or examples. Let’s say you wanted to learn the difference between hawks and falcons. It would be preferable to see interleaved examples of hawks and falcons (HFHFHFHF) rather than several examples of hawks (HHHH) followed by several examples of falcons (FFFF; Eglinton & Kang, 2017). The latter would be called a ‘blocked sequence’.

- Interleaving, at least as it is defined in the research literature, relates to short items — specific questions, one-sentence examples, images. At most, a couple of paragraphs of text (a few studies have interleaved case studies of types of psychological disorders). It doesn’t mean interleaving entire lessons or topics (though that is, of course, also possible, and in the case of lessons it already happens in most school timetables).

- Similarly, the research evidence as a whole does not tend to study blocks that occur in different study sessions (e.g. hawks on Monday, falcons on Tuesday), as might happen in schools. It seems likely to me that this would increase the advantage of interleaving, because it would make it even more difficult to contrast the different types of item in the blocks. However, the literature as a whole is a bit short of studies of interleaving in real school contexts, so we await further evidence on this!

- Spacing, on the other hand, is often studied over long timescales, such as from one lesson to the next. The spacing effect means that people learn better if there is a longer delay between one study session and the next. Spacing could mean seconds, minutes, weeks, or even years (the benefit of longer delays is sometimes referred to as ‘the lag effect’).

- If you interleave some examples, there is inevitably a slight delay i.e. spacing between one example and the next one of the same type. Initially, that is why researchers thought that interleaving was helpful (e.g. Kornell & Bjork, 2008)*, but this turned out not to be the case; if you space out a blocked schedule by adding filler items, the interleaved examples still lead to better learning.

- Although spacing and interleaving are both desirable difficulties, this doesn’t mean that it it’s best to do both at once. In fact, spacing out interleaved examples can make things worse - it makes that contrast between one item and the next more difficult, meaning that the learning is no better than blocking (Birnbaum et al, 2013; Kang & Pashler, 2012). As Monica Birnbaum and colleagues put it, “two desirable difficulties are not always more desirable than one“ (p. 401).

- You can interleave either new learning, or practice tasks. I talk about that issue more here. In both cases, discrimination between different types of example is important.

Some classroom examples

Since interleaving is all about contrasting examples, let’s do a bit of meta-interleaving (I might have just invented that term!) with examples that feature interleaving, retrieval practice, and spacing:

1. Teacher A shows a class examples of three types of rock (igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary)**. They cover igneous at the start of the class for a few minutes, then look at examples of metamorphic rock, and then examples of sedimentary.

Comment: this is a blocked presentation. There is no spacing and no retrieval. It would be preferable to interleave the different examples.

2. Now Teacher A shows up a mixture of different types of rock on a Powerpoint, and asks the class what type they are.

Comment: this is an interleaved practice task. It also involves retrieval of what has previously been learned. It’s not spaced to any meaningful extent.

3. Teacher B does the same presentation, but delays the practice task by half an hour, during which time the class writes a short essay.

Comment: the presentation is still blocked, but the practice task can now benefit from spacing as well as interleaving and retrieval.

4. Teacher C covers igneous rocks, then does half of the essay task, then covers metamorphic rocks, then does the other half of the essay task, then covers sedimentary rocks.

Comment: this is an unhelpful use of interleaving and spacing, because the delays are making it harder for learners to contrast the three types of rock.

5. The next day, Teacher C shows the mixed practice task, and calls out the types of rock rather than asking the class to identify them.

Comment: here, there is some spacing (over a day) but no retrieval practice, as the information is given to the pupils again (rather like spaced re-reading) rather than asking them to remember it. There is still interleaving, which could be helpful.

Some simple recommendations

Hopefully these examples show that we can have various combinations of retrieval, spacing, and interleaving. All three can be helpful if used appropriately. In general, interleaving means promoting contrast. The key rule of thumb, for either interleaved learning or practice, is:

- Mix up different questions/examples, but do so within the same study session.

Spacing and retrieval can both be usefully combined with interleaving (as seen in example 3, above) or used separately. It’s useful to remember that spacing out practice, for all that it helps tackle forgetting, can have a detrimental effect on learners’ ability to contrast examples.

One final point - interleaving is only helpful if the content (the different examples/items) is related in some way. The more similar they are (like the different types of rocks and birds) the better it is to help learners make these contrasts. An example in the domain of English or languages would be to contrast easily-confused grammatical structures, genres or author styles. It’s unlikely to help if you interleave English with Biology.

Any questions, feel free to comment here or ask me on Twitter, @JW_Firth


Birnbaum, M. S., Kornell, N., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Why interleaving enhances inductive learning: The roles of discrimination and retrieval. Memory & Cognition, 41(3), 392-402.

Eglington, L. G., & Kang, S. H. (2017). Interleaved presentation benefits science category learning. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(4), 475-485.

Kang, S. H., & Pashler, H. (2012). Learning painting styles: Spacing is advantageous when it promotes discriminative contrast. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26(1), 97-103.

Kornell, N. & Bjork, R. A. (2008). Learning concepts and categories: Is spacing the “enemy of induction”? Psychological Science, 19, 585-592.

Yan, V. X., Soderstrom, N. C., Seneviratna, G. S., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2017). How should exemplars be sequenced in inductive learning? Empirical evidence versus learners’ opinions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 23(4), 403-416.

* Confusingly, the early studies of interleaving often referred to it as ’spacing’ for this reason!

** The rocks example was suggested in Yan et al, 2017.

For more about how we can apply memory research to education, check out my co-authored book “Psychology in the classroom: A teacher’s guide to what works”, and my book for pupils/students, “How to learn”.

Psychology – background reading list⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

 What should you read to prime yourself for further study in Psychology? Image via  Pixabay .

What should you read to prime yourself for further study in Psychology? Image via Pixabay.

I’m often asked by new or prospective Psychology students (or their parents) if I can recommend some interest-based reading to extend their understanding or prepare for a degree. Here are a few options, all of which are chosen to be interesting, easy to read, and very relevant to studying Psychology or related disciplines.

They vary a lot in their style and authorship (some by researchers, other by journalists and the like), and I certainly don’t endorse everything that they say, but they are all interesting, well-written, and collectively would give a useful overview of the subject. In alphabetical order…

Adventures in memory: The science and secrets of remembering and forgetting by Hilde Østby & Ylva Østby

A really well-written exploration of the processes and biology behind human memory.

Children’s minds by Margaret Donaldson

Not a recent work (1979), but a short and easy read, providing an excellent primer for the study of developmental psychology.

Elephants on acid: And other bizarre experiments by Alex Boese

Has anyone ever tried to learn memories digestively, or transplant animals’ brains? Apparently so. A collection of fascinating research studies, some disturbing but others surprisingly mainstream.

Freedom of mind: Helping loved ones leave controlling people, cults, and beliefs by Steven Hassan

Hassan is not a psychologist, but he does know a hell of a lot about cults, and he makes some insightful links between their methods of mind control and classic research from social psychology.

Games people play: The psychology of human relationships by Eric Berne

A weird but compelling analysis of human relationships in terms of trying to get a payoff from social games.

The Lucifer effect: How good people turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo

Zimbardo is an eminent social psychologist, best known for running the Stanford prison experiment. This book explores the factors behind harmful and abusive behaviour.

The man who mistook his wife for a hat by Oliver Sacks

Perhaps more neuroscience than psychology, this nevertheless provides insights into many forms of disordered or unusual behaviour, and is wonderfully written, too. A great primer ahead of studying psychopathology.

Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential by Carol Dweck

The pop-sci title can be off-putting, as can the ubiquitous ‘growth mindset’ posters seen in every school nowadays, but Dweck’s research and analysis are still well worth reading about and understanding.

Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

This book helped to a launch the field of ‘behavioural economics’, bringing psychology and economics closer together. The key idea is that behaviour change can be more effectively motivated by making choices more convenient than by offering rewards and punishments.

Quiet by Susan Cain

I’m not always the biggest fan of personality psychology, but this book has a profound insight - the way so much of the world is set up for the benefit of the extravert majority.

Quirkology: The curious science of everyday lives by Richard Wiseman

Wiseman is a psychologist and a great communicator. All of his books are good reads. I enjoyed this one due to its broad scope, touching on a great many everyday behaviours and linking them to research.

Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain by Maryanne Wolf

What happens when we read? As well as being relevant to educational psychology and children’s development, this book has insights that will be useful for studying perception and working memory.

Sapiens: A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

No student should start a degree in Psychology without a basic understanding of human origins! Harari’s book is clear and up to date.

Thinking, fast & slow by Daniel Kahneman

In some ways, one of the harder reads on this list, but certainly one of the most fascinating in terms of its insights into a research career that led to groundbreaking insights into how flawed everyday thinking can be.

What the dog saw by Malcolm Gladwell

A collections of short articles. Gladwell isn’t a psychologist but he’s a superb thinker and writer, and many of these topics are highly relevant to applied psychology, such as the question of whether job interviews actually work. His book ‘Outliers’ is also excellent, focusing on what makes some people exceptional performers.

When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing by Daniel Pink

A highly readable book, all about how we perform better at certain times of day (that might sound obvious, but did you know that there are particular times of day best suited to creative or analytical work?) A useful primer for biological psychology and the study of sleep.

Hopefully this provides a useful primer for anyone just starting out in Psychology, or wishing to return to it. It doesn’t include many ‘classics’ - such as the works of John Bowlby or William James. These are certainly important reads, but perhaps (I think) easier to tackle after first establishing an idea of what the subject as a whole is all about (and perhaps after reading a primer on the history and philosophy of the subject, such as ‘A Brief History of Psychology’ by Michael Wertheimer).

I may, at some point, follow up with a list of suggested books about the psychology of education!

Exam Preparation With 24 Hours To Go: Advice On Revision (Part 2)⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

 Settle down for the last day of study - short, 'pomodoro' study sessions work really well at this stage. Image by  David Joyce .

Settle down for the last day of study - short, 'pomodoro' study sessions work really well at this stage. Image by David Joyce.

This post is an adapted extract from my new book, How to Learn.

See also the previous post, "A week until the exam".

Clearly having only a day or two to go until your exam is not ideal, but at some point, we all get to the stage where there is very little time left. Whether you have been working systematically through your learning and revision all year or have left it all a bit too late, there are still several important things that you can do at this stage. The following applies to the final day before the exam and will be expressed as such, although if you are planning ahead, these revision tasks would be best begun with two days to go!


Your main focus at this stage should be on dividing up the remaining available study time into short, focused blocks of around 25 minutes, with short breaks in between (i.e. using the pomodoro technique). Write this schedule down, with the timings of each of the study sessions you can fit in during the day—doing so will only take a few minutes, and the external written list of times will help you to stick to the plan (as will setting a countdown timer on your phone for each session). Allow a decent amount of time for meal breaks, though. And don’t plan on either getting an early night or staying up late—neither of these things will help.

Make sure your study space is comfortable and quiet, that you have water and snacks to hand, and use the five-minute breaks in between sessions to get a bit of exercise (even just walking outside for some fresh air and back again).

You can’t relearn your course in a day, but you can familiarise yourself with the exam format in that time. From my own teaching experience, I feel that exam technique can make as much as a 10% difference to a student’s eventual grade. Therefore, even with such a short time to go, it’s worth using the first of your study sessions to look over the format of the exam (if that information is available), and check that you know all of the key details: how long the exam paper is, how many marks each section is worth, what is mandatory and what is optional, and so on. Take notes of these details as you go, and look over them all one more time just before the exam starts. Later in the day you will be doing exam practice which will consolidate this new understanding (it’s also worth double checking where and when the exam is, if you’re not sure).

The morning's study sessions

For your remaining study sessions in the morning before the exam, you should focus on rapid-fire retrieval of key terms and concept knowledge. For all types of exam, it’s going to be really valuable to work through these key terms and test yourself. Granted, this is cramming, and not the best way to learn over the long-term, but with a day to go it’s your most effective option, and when you make use of retrieval practice it will result in some real gains (in contrast to passive activities such as re-reading class notes or highlighting textbook chapters).

The main focus should be testing yourself using flashcards, practice questions, or other sets of course content–you may be able to find ready-made sets of flashcards on if you haven’t previously prepared any (or substitute a detailed list of key terms). In each of your 25-minute study sessions, work through a set of flashcards, a set of multiple choice questions, testing yourself until you get all of the answers right.

As you get the answer to each flashcard correct, put it to one side, so that you have a gradually decreasing bundle left in your hands. Keep going until you have got every answer correct at least once. With terms and definitions, it is a good idea to start with the definitions (i.e. recalling the terms) and then switching the sides of the cards in order to do the more challenging task of remembering the definitions from looking at the term. This means you will go through all of them again, retrieving key information from memory once more.

Practice Exam questions

As the day goes on, you might want to switch to a more exam-specific strategy. One excellent option would be to work through all of your flashcards in the morning (shuffle them all together, to gain the benefits of interleaved practice) and then move on to practicing specific exam-style questions later.

For exam papers which are made up partly or entirely of short-answer or multiple-choice questions, you should now be in a position to answer such questions quickly and confidently, having just revised the key terms that morning. Do so without referring to your notes, to ensure that you are actively drawing on memory (yes, it may feel uncomfortable, but it’s much more beneficial!).

Check through all your answers (assuming answers are freely available; if unavailable, contact a friend or use Google). If there were any that you found a struggle to answer, check these particularly carefully—you will learn a lot from tackling the gaps, for if the same question comes up in tomorrow’s exam, your revision session will be recent enough in mind that you should have a clear episodic memory of struggling with the question and then looking up the answer.

There may be a few areas that you still really struggle with even after going through practice questions, and for these it would be worth creating simple verbal or visual mnemonics. 

For exam papers that involve writing more extended answers, take a few minutes at the start of each of the afternoon’s short study sessions to look at practice questions/past paper questions on that topic, paying attention to any key command term used (e.g. describe, evaluate). This can make a major difference to the outcome, and it’s worth noting which ones come up most often. If you don’t already have a set of practice questions, it’s probably too late to get teacher/lecturer advice on this, but use social media to ask your classmates—the chances are, someone has already compiled a list and will be willing to share it with you. Again, answering these questions is most valuable without referring to your notes, but do check your answers at the end of the study session.

If you’re going to be dealing with full-length essay questions then clearly you won’t have time to write a practice answer to every possible question in a single afternoon. However, you can pick some of the most likely ones to come up, covering all the possible sub-topics. In each study session you should write a detailed plan that lists what would go into an essay answer, dividing the essay up paragraph by paragraph.

If available, refer to model essay answers, considering details such how they set out an introduction, how many paragraphs they have, how long they are overall in terms of word count, and how much detail is given in the supporting evidence used.

Overall, high priorities with a day to go include:

  • Ensuring that you are clear on the format of the exam.
  • A final run-though of key terms and concepts, testing yourself on flashcards.
  • Doing practice exam questions and/or detailed essay plans.
  • A degree of prioritising among possible topics.


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A week until the exam? Advice on revision (part 1)⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

 With a week to go, it's time to work hard, but also to work  smart , using evidence-based study techniques. Image:  Pixabay .

With a week to go, it's time to work hard, but also to work smart, using evidence-based study techniques. Image: Pixabay.

This post is an adapted extract from my new book, How to Learn.

If your exam is close, it’s time to really focus. There’s no room for procrastination, but you do still have enough time (if you use it well) to seriously upgrade your level of detailed knowledge as well as your exam technique. This post explains how evidence from the science of learning can help you make the best use of the study time you have left.

The first thing you should do is to make sure you have all of the materials you need. This includes your textbook(s), classroom notes, sets of flashcards, your own summaries or concept maps based on your reading, and any available past papers or lists of practice questions.

Regarding where to work, you don’t need to have a single study space, but at least have an idea of where you are going to get your revision done - somewhere quiet where you have a good amount of space and can spread out your books and plug in your laptop. Where do you work best? (“At a friend’s house” is the wrong answer! Multi-tasking makes learning much harder, and it's unlikely that you will fully concentrate on the task at hand with other people around). Interestingly, psychologists agree that it’s worth dividing your study between several places, to avoid the memories becoming too context-specific.

Another valuable thing to do with at a week or more to go is to run through all of your revision flashcards. This will help to refresh detailed knowledge ahead of the remainder of your study sessions. Test yourself until you get each concept right at least once. 

If you haven’t been making revision flashcards all year, it’s too time consuming to start now - either find some online via a site like (there’s a good chance that previous students from your course have made their flashcards freely available - for example, here's a set I made on the psychology topic of sleep), or make do with testing yourself on items from the glossary of your textbook or a similar list of key terms.

Next, it’s time to take a realistic look at how much time you have left for revision. Sketch a rough timetable which includes each study session and break. This should focus around identifying short slots if time – around an hour is fine (the pomodoro technique, where you study in 25 minute bursts, is ideal for a single day but probably too intensive to do for a whole week, at least in my opinion). It would be a good idea at this stage to follow your school or university timetable, if you have one – this is an already-learned structure which will be much easier to stick to than a brand new timetable that you have only just invented.

Overall, you can probably fit in around 5 hour-long sessions per day. For most people there’s little point in trying to do more than this in a single day - you’ll just burn out. Really long study sessions also tend not to be very productive, especially if they are interspersed with chatting with friends, listening to music, or checking social media (in fact, it’s probably best to confine all your social, with family or friends, to a certain time of the day, e.g. at the end of the day once your work is done). 

Next, allocate each topic or subtopic to one of the study sessions. For example if your course had four topics and each of these had three subtopics, then you have 12 subtopics to divide between the available sessions. According to the advice above, you should have 35 sessions available across seven days, so each subtopic can be allocated more than once. That’s fine - it means that you’ll go back to each area of the course after a few days and study it again consolidating what you have already done. However, keep the last couple of days of your plan clear, both as a contingency in case of illness, and to allow time for a final run through of your flashcards to consolidate terminology or other learning of finer details. In addition, you must take proper breaks, whether whole days or the occasional afternoon/morning – it’s your choice. This probably means that you will have more like 50 1-hour study sessions over a fortnight.

What should you actually do during each study sessions? One of the best things at this stage is to write concept maps from memory to check that you still remember how topics fit together, and don’t have any gaps in your overall understanding. It’s really important to do this from memory, not by copying - Blunt & Karpicke (2014) showed that retrieval of content was more important than the process of writing the maps. However, maps still provide an overview which shows how topics link together, which is something you don't get from linear notes. If you haven't used them before, concept maps show concepts linked together by logical statements such as "is a part of" - you can see an example here.

Another very valuable task is to work through your textbook or your own written summaries (or both), checking your level of recall and understanding. Passive re-reading is an ineffective study strategy (Callender & McDaniel, 2009) so instead you should aim to use a strategy called elaborative interrogation. This means asking questions as you go through each part of the text, and in particular asking yourself “why” questions – promoting analytical skills which are so important for exams. This is a useful technique at any stage of your studies but particularly now during revision, because the technique has been shown to work better after schema knowledge has been developed (Woloshyn et al., 1992). If you have used the Cornell notes system, you will already have key questions written down one side of your classroom notes, and can use these!

Writing a concept map plus working through the reading may well take a couple of study sessions, or even more. How does your rate of study compare with how many topics/sub-topics you have to cover? The time you have left is fixed, so if you are going too fast or too slow, you can make some adjustments now. If you have time to tackle a 3rd or 4th session on each sub-topic, then move on to writing out full exam-style questions - you are likely to be ready to do well in them having already worked through the content in detail. Again, a more active task is preferable, so even if you have already written out practice essays during the year, it’s more valuable to re-write one from memory (prompting retrieval practice) rather than reading through your previous attempts.

If you come across areas where you feel confused, there may still be enough time to get some help from your teacher or lecturer at this stage. However, as time ticks down and you find yourself with only a few days left, don’t spend the time travelling in to university or school (which would use up valuable time that could be spent studying). Instead, make contact by email; it’s not unreasonable to send a short list of queries with a few days still to go, and most teachers will be happy to address these.

Top priorities with a week to go

- Ensuring you have all of your key materials including past papers and flashcards.
- Running through key content using flash cards.
- Planning your remaining time, dividing days into around 5 short study sessions that follow your usual timetable.
- Allocating subtopics to each study session, covering every topic twice or more but allowing for days/afternoons off.
- Moving on to writing practice questions.
- Making contact with your teacher by email if there are areas of particular difficulty.

Advice on Revision, Part 2 will focus on the final 1-2 days before your exam.


Blunt, J. R., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Learning with retrieval-based concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(3), 849-858.

Callender, A. A., & McDaniel, M. A. (2009). The limited benefits of rereading educational texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34(1), 30-41.

Woloshyn, V. E., Pressley, M., & Schneider, W. (1992). Elaborative- interrogation and prior-knowledge effects on learning of facts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(1), 115-124.

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Spacing and interleaving in the STEM classroom⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

 Interleaving examples of different species of animal can help learners to remember these new categories and to transfer this learning when trying to identify novel examples.  Image: Pixabay .

Interleaving examples of different species of animal can help learners to remember these new categories and to transfer this learning when trying to identify novel examples. Image: Pixabay.

I thought I'd share a slightly extended version of my answer to a question about spacing and interleaving from the CogSciSci email group.

The question essentially asked what spacing and interleaving might look like in practice when teaching science (I have written about these two concepts in much more detail and in ways that apply to multiple teaching subjects in my book with Marc Smith, Psychology in the Classroom).

The spacing effect means that when study and re-study are separated by a delay, this benefits learning. It could involve study of anything - a lot of the evidence has focused on vocabulary, so an obvious link to science would be to use spacing for terminology. Although it's counterintuitive to think that waiting longer before restudy would be helpful, an element of forgetting actually seems to help, in comparison to following up on something more quickly. A useful analogy is to imagine painting a wall - it's better to wait, because there's no point in applying the second coat until the first one has dried.

When spacing out practice, a longer gap is better than a short one; there is almost no limit to this, but for practical reasons you probably don't want to space by more than a few weeks within a typical course. Still, it's really important to point out that the information needs to be well learned in the first session, otherwise it will simply be forgotten with no benefit to spacing. The learners need to have really got it at that point. As Rawson & Dunlosky (2011) put it, "our prescriptive conclusion for students is to practice recalling concepts to an initial criterion of 3 correct recalls and then to relearn them 3 times at widely spaced intervals" (p. 283).

The term interleaving refers to varying the order of a set of tasks or examples, whereby each item is immediately followed and preceded by an example of a different category/concept rather than appearing in blocks of the same type of item repeatedly (which is termed a ‘blocked’ arrangement). It could arise due to a randomisation or ‘shuffling’ of the order of items, or a more deliberate alternation of items (e.g. presenting geoscience pupils with an example of a u-shaped glacial valley, then an example of a river valley, then another glacial valley, and so on).

There are two main things you can interleave - initial learning or practice. The evidence is pretty good that for practice, interleaving different types of examples is a good idea, rather than doing lots of the same type of practice problem. This has been best demonstrated for maths (e.g. Rohrer et al, 2015), though a similar idea could be applied to any subject with lots of short answer or multiple-choice questions. The key thing is to mix up lots of different types of problems/questions rather than present them categorised by type (so not, for example, giving learners a set of problems that are all about multiplying fractions).

It may be that you would tend to interleave practice questions like this anyway, but it's probably quite common in classrooms to give learners lots of practice of recent material and skills, rather than interleaving these with past examples. One reason for the benefit is that interleaving seems to help learners recognise what strategy to use in later tests - the unpredictable order means it's not immediately obvious what concepts and strategies are going to be needed in order to answer the question. It therefore helps them learn to read and analyse questions.

For initial learning, interleaving involves presenting different, easily confused concepts side by side, rather than several examples of the same thing being presented together, and again this has benefits compared to categorising items into a 'block' of the same type. It has relevance to any sort of concept learning, including for science subjects, although most of the research conducted so far has been done on abstract stimuli (such as shapes and patterns) rather than educational materials. Two useful studies that are directly relevant to science are Eglington & Kang (2017), who used interleaved examples of chemical molecules, and Rawson et al (2015), who gave definitions of new psychology concepts and then interleaved real world examples of the concepts. Both studies found that interleaving was advantageous compared to presenting multiple examples of the same concept.

The benefit seems to derive from the interleaved order making it easier for learners to identify key differences between concepts that are easily confused, and for this reason, it's not going to be helpful if concepts are very different (because nobody would confuse them). For example, nobody is going to mix up a fish with a bird, but they might confuse a reptile and an amphibian, so the latter categories might benefit from presenting learners with interleaved examples.

An important point for both types of interleaving is that they don't just improve memory for previous examples, but also make learners better able to categorise new examples (i.e. they showed transfer of learning).

Spacing and interleaving have implications for how teachers plan and structure lessons and topics, though they also relate to students' revision. In my next post, I'll give some advice on how these techniques can be put to use to help make revision more effective - ideal for exam season!

If you are a science educator interested in applying cognitive science to your work, you can apply to join the CogSciSci email group here.

Practical Suggestions for Tackling the Teacher Retention Crisis⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Career progression: is there enough scope - and enough practical support - for teachers to keep developing and challenging themselves throughout their career? Image: Fras333

Career progression: is there enough scope - and enough practical support - for teachers to keep developing and challenging themselves throughout their career? Image: Fras333

The quality of teaching matters to how well pupils do at school. So how do we, as a society, encourage high-quality and experienced teachers to stay in the classroom rather than leave the profession or move into management?

This question was addressed by the Scottish Government's recent report, 'Teacher Workforce Planning for Scottish Schools', and also featured in the initial findings from their panel of international advisers earlier in July 2017.

It is becoming a major issue well beyond Scotland, too, with record numbers of teachers leaving south of the border. Teaching unions have spoken of a perfect storm of negative conditions: funding cuts which have reduced (real terms) pay, increasing workload and hours, and the likely impact of Brexit on the availability of teachers from the EU, among other pressures.

This problem is of personal interest and relevance to me as someone who works in an HE education department, as my day job involves preparing and educating new trainee teachers. However, my role also puts me in the category of someone who has left the school classroom! I see this choice as being largely due to my enthusiasm for helping to develop the new generation of Psychology teachers at a key time for the subject's development in Scottish schools, but it's also the case that I was motivated by a desire for pedagogy-related career progression which was otherwise absent.


Both reports mentioned above highlight the need to find ways of motivating experienced classroom teachers to remain in post. This excerpt comes from the Teacher Workforce report:


The Chartered Teacher Scheme was withdrawn in 2012, having previously provided a way for pay increases to teachers who undertook a course of further academic study. A number of colleagues had attained Chartered Teacher status during my early years of school teaching (my first permanent secondary post began in 2001), and it seemed to me that the view of the Scheme among the staff as a whole was quite negative. In particular, people who were not Chartered did not feel that it rewarded the 'best' teachers or significantly benefited the pupils.

Nevertheless, it certainly did provide an option for progression outside of promotion to management, a route which does not appeal to everyone (and not can everyone be a manager), and which inevitably results in reduced classroom time for the promoted staff member.

Scotland is keen to emulate other countries such as Finland in making teachers a Masters-level profession. This is welcome, but is not likely to tackle all of the issues around retention of staff, given that Masters qualifications tend to be completed early in the teaching career, and are therefore not likely to function as an incentive for more experienced staff to remain in teaching.

It can, of course, be argued that establishing this level of qualification (or above) as the norm will result in teachers being treated as professionals to a greater degree, and that this higher regard throughout society would impact on teacher retention and make teachers less demoralised. I certainly think it could help - though it could be argued that UK teachers already have relatively high status compared to the European norm. Clearly the nature of the job itself also plays a key role, irrespective of career progression; going hand-in-hand with societal respect, we urgently need greater agency for teachers to manage learning and exercise professional judgement in their own classrooms, rather than the more top-down accountability processes which are increasing worldwide. It is also vital to reduce the workload associated with a non-stop round of curriculum updates. However again, these things don't apply specifically to the experienced professionals who exit teaching.

Could a Chartered Teacher programme be reintroduced with more success? I don't think the negative attitudes that I mentioned can be put down just to jealously over colleagues' higher pay; departmental heads, in contrast, tend to be viewed positively by colleagues, with fellow teachers recognising their commitment and hard work. It seemed like Chartered Status was resented in part because it seemed like money for nothing - besides being supposedly expert practitioners, the Chartered Teachers didn't actually do anything more for the school than their colleagues did on an ongoing basis. The other side of this coin is that it provided little for a Chartered Teacher to engage with intellectually. They role wasn't any different, and therefore beyond their initial studies there wasn't much to maintain motivation and provide a sense of purpose.

It follows that there is a need for a means of progression for classroom teachers which is linked to a clear role of benefit to the school - a quid pro quo, where the promoted member of staff is doing something of tangible value, akin to that provided by departmental heads and other middle management, and in doing so gains genuine and meaningful progression throughout their career. 


One possibility is to establish a specialist mentor role for those who guide and support trainee teachers during their work placements. This possibility is hinted at in the Teacher Workforce report, which refers to an additional time allocation for mentoring of students:


Having mentored two student teachers last year, I can confirm that it is certainly time consuming (if anyone thinks that the students do all your teaching while you get a break, this is far from the case!), but it is also professionally challenging and very rewarding. The idea that teachers in positions could have a reduction in teaching workload is interesting, and it would be useful to know exactly what this would involve. To do it well, freeing up time for professional reading, meetings and detailed feedback, something like 20% of contact time, equivalent to a day a week for a full time teacher, would seem reasonable to me. Any less and it is likely to result in increased stress for the mentor, and make it hard to guide students as well as it should be done.

This could provide a specialist route that would allow the most skilled practitioners to not only remain in the classroom, but to make their teaching craft (and perhaps, specific aspect of that craft) a specialism. It would be of benefit to trainees, too, who would be mentored by a motivated expert teacher rather than someone who lacks the time and/or experience to fully support them.


Another possible route for professional progression, via an essentially similar model, would be to create a teacher-researcher role. In my previous school, a number of teachers engaged with research as part of a research centre (see 'Can teachers be researchers?'), and the GTCS and other teaching bodies encourage practical research engagement for teachers (often termed 'practitioner enquiry' - but that's another debate!).

However, the objection that is most often raised by teachers about the prospect of conducting or otherwise engaging with research is that they lack time.

A reduced workload, again of around 20% of contact time while otherwise remaining in teaching duties, could facilitate teacher research engagement very significantly. Most teachers can see the value of research, and it typically links intimately with classroom practice (for example, research into memory, motivation, etc, or research which develops their specialised subject knowledge). Given time to do it properly and to develop the required technical skills, they are much more likely to engage with the research community more broadly, follow high standards and produce good quality work. It would provide a stimulating addition to their teaching work that might help to motivate teachers who would otherwise choose not to remain in a teaching role. What's more, their research work could be part of a school-wide agenda and the findings shared with colleagues, circumventing the criticism of Chartered Status discussed above, i.e. that they weren't contributing anything extra to the school on an ongoing basis.

I'm aware that a significant number of schools/clusters in England and Wales have established a 'research lead' role, and while very interesting, this is not really what I'm advocating - such a position is essentially unique within the institution (we can't all be the research lead!) - and I'm more interested in a route that any experienced teacher could potentially undertake.

As a follow-on from the prospect of engaging more teachers as researchers, any school in which teachers are conducting active data gathering should have an ethical approval process. Again, in my previous role, this was done by volunteers on top of a full teaching workload. Making a position on a research ethics board (which could be run across a cluster of schools rather than one) a specialised form of teacher-researcher role - with extra pay and a time allocation - seems to me a more sustainable model, and one that would encourage those who do it to prioritise it appropriately and to develop the necessary skills and knowledge.

In short, I don't think the answer to the retention crisis is for teachers to do another qualification and then essentially be handed money for nothing for the rest of their career. I do think that they should be offered one or more pathways for career progression that would mean still being in the classroom for the majority of their contracted hours, but would add a stimulating new challenge which was of broader benefit along with increased pay. As well as the prospect of advancement without the need to enter management, such roles would be highly motivating to experienced professionals who perhaps feel that they have developed their skills as far as they can in a standard classroom role.

I have suggested two key types of promoted role - student mentor and teacher-researcher. I'm sure that there are other possibilities, including in pastoral and extra curricular areas.

What is evidence-based education?⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Finding and interpreting educational research can be a challenge for teachers. Image source here.

Finding and interpreting educational research can be a challenge for teachers. Image source here.

A primer on the ‘what works’ debate, with key sources and a discussion of its pros and cons.

I recently joined and met with SURE - ‘School and University Research Enquiry’, a research group which has put several schools in the Glasgow area in contact with the University of Strathclyde in order to exchange knowledge and conduct new research. The ultimate aim is to promote a more evidence-informed approach to educational decision making and practice.

With this in mind, I thought it would be helpful to write a brief overview of the field of evidence-based education, including some of the main publications and debates.


What is it?

Firstly, evidence-based education is the idea that research of various kinds should be used to inform decisions about teaching and learning. It is conceived of as an alternative to teaching practice that is guided by intuition and/or experience.

An educator’s job includes a huge amount of decision making. For example, what should be taught today? What about tomorrow? What type of homework should be set, and when? How can a teacher maintain discipline effectively, and engage their pupils? Evidence-based education aims to tackle these questions pragmatically on the basis of past findings, and is sometimes referred to as a 'what works' approach.

Focusing on the example of homework, a traditional view might be that the teacher should allocate whatever they judge to be useful, or whatever is just ‘the way it’s done’ (or whatever is lying around the office, is quick to mark, or is in the textbook/revision guide!). An evidence-based alternative would be to look at this issue from the perspective of research which has shown that some strategies lead to more effective/durable learning than others - the cognitive psychology of memory tells us that learners remember more if there is a delay before they practice material that they have mastered in class, and that they remember more if they do a closed-book test rather than copying from notes. The teacher may therefore decide to set a practice test, and to do so after a one-week delay rather than on the same day as the material was done in class. 

The above example relates to memory, and the what works approach as a whole usually refers to techniques or interventions that boost attainment (as measured by some form of test or exam), but evidence could inform many other types of decision too. For example, when considering an issue such as student motivation, evidence could be evaluated to help determine the most effective way to proceed.

As a model, this borrows from the philosophy behind evidence-based medicine. We would probably take it for granted that a doctor should select a treatment that has been shown by reliable (and replicated) research to be the most effective, rather than being guided by tradition (leeches, anyone?) or their individual gut feeling about what ought to work. In the same way, it is argued, teachers should look to the evidence rather than relying on their personal preferences or even on classroom experience. Insisting on evidence may have the incidental advantage of making educational practices less vulnerable to fads, such as the learning styles myth.


Sounds great! So everyone agrees with this…?

No! It has many critics, and their points are well worth taking on board. Firstly, the idea that education can derive a model of effective practice from medicine is open to doubt. Learning is not really like curing an illness - it’s cumulative, has no clearly defined end point, and there are important subtleties such as how well it can be transferred to new situations. The entire approach could therefore be seen as over-simplistic.

Secondly, what works for one group might not work for all. To take one example, Kalyuga (2007) has described the ‘expertise reversal effect’ whereby tasks that are effective with beginners become ineffective or at least inefficient when used with more advanced learners. Another example, much discussed in recent years, is that homework appears to be more effective for secondary students than for primary (Cooper et al, 2006). This is not a killer blow to the idea of evidence-based practice, but it does suggest that the use of evidence must be cautious and thoughtful - we can’t apply one-size-fits-all solutions.

Thirdly, there are concerns about the validity of some of the evidence used. Education is a notoriously tricky area to research - for ethical reasons it is often necessary to rely on correlations and secondary data, leaving some findings open to confounding variables. Meanwhile, a lot of the research evidence from cognitive psychology in areas such as working memory and learning is based on laboratory studies with university students. That doesn’t make it inherently bad research, but does mean that we should be cautious about generalising it to school pupils. 

Finally - and linked to the previous point - some people argue that the evidence referred to in this approach is often positivist in its underlying scientific philosophy, whereas many educators and learning researchers subscribe to a social constructivist view of learning.


Key literature

There is a lot of literature in this field, including both empirical research studies and reviews. For anyone who is new to this area, these are a few very useful publications to get you started. In the main they come from proponents of the idea, but I've also included some key critiques:

American Psychological Association’s ‘top 20’ ways to apply psychology in the classroom

Broader than most, the APA’s guide includes such issues as creativity, classroom management, and growth mindset, as well as strategies that impact on learning more directly.

Biesta (2007)

Gert Biesta here criticises evidence-based practice and also questions the broader assumption that closely-controlled lab work has ever contributed much to society (!). He argues that it tends to link to top-down approaches where administrators and governments say that strategies work on the basis of lab research, when they may not work in a specific context. Additionally, the notion of something working doesn’t address philosophical issues of who it works for, and to what social end.

Coe et al - the Sutton Trust report

Coe et al (2014)’s report ‘What makes Great Teaching?’ is useful in that it goes beyond the cognitive evidence and considers such issues as classroom climate, teacher knowledge levels, and how teachers can improve. Otherwise, it draws on a similar body of research to Dunlosky et al (2013; see below). The Sutton Trust also back the Education Endowment Foundation’s ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’, which provides a useful (if rather undiscriminating) visual guide to evidence-based strategies in terms of cost, lasting impact and the security of the supporting research. 

Dunlosky et al (2013)

The authors are psychologists and memory researchers, and this paper reviews a number of different findings from cognitive psychology. In particular, it endorses the use of retrieval practice (the ‘testing effect’) and distributed practice (the ‘spacing effect’), while noting that techniques such as re-reading and highlighting are generally ineffective as study strategies.

Hattie’s taxonomy

Australian researcher John Hattie is probably the biggest name in this field; he has synthesised numerous meta-analyses of educational research and built up a list of interventions together with their average statistical effect size. He takes an effect size of 0.4 as a 'hinge point' above which interventions fall into (roughly) the top half, i.e. they are among the more effective interventions - but the higher the effect size, the better. The work is also helpful in identifying some interventions that have tended not to make a large impact. It has its flaws, both conceptual and statistical, but it’s a useful starting place for finding out about several important strategies.

The Learning Scientists

An excellent blog run by four cognitive psychologists who study learning and memory. It is aimed at students and teachers, and makes the science highly accessible without dumbing it down.

Marzano’s top ten

It’s useful to be aware of the work of Marzano et al (2001), one of the earlier evidence-based summaries of effective teaching interventions. The strategies they endorse include analogies and metaphors, student-generated study notes, and feedback/formative assessment. There have been important new findings and some of the key research questions have moved on a bit since it came out, however, so it is a bit dated.


The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) in the USA offers the ’What Works Clearinghouse’. It usefully reviews studies of efficacy in terms of learning, but the focus tends to be on large-scale programmes, for example the “Great Explorations in Math and Science® (GEMS®) Space Science Sequence” curriculum, rather than on specific techniques that teachers could use in class. This makes their findings less immediately applicable.

Zhao (2017)

In his paper ‘What works may hurt’, Zhao refers back to the analogy of evidence-based medicine and borrows a further concept - that of side effects. From this perspective, an intervention may ‘work’ from a learning point of view, but it could have any number of side effects. Just as with a drug, any benefits must be evaluated in that context. For example, an intervention that boosts learning over the short-term could also harm motivation over the longer term.


Is all of this a threat to teachers?

It is worth considering: does all of this amount to self-proclaimed experts telling us what to do (or what not to do)? At times that might be a valid concern, but the entire nature of making education more evidence based is that that evidence is (or can be) open to scrutiny. You may not agree with all of the conclusions from the sources above, but their arguments are probably backed up by a more thorough factual base than the opinion of a staffroom colleague. And if you are unsure, then you are free to scrutinise and evaluate the sources.

A problem, certainly, lies with teachers’ access to information. If teachers can’t or won’t access the evidence themselves, this puts a lot of power in the hands of central institutions who may try to push inappropriate programmes and interventions. Teachers (and schools more broadly) are in a stronger position to ward this off if they not only learn about the evidence but are also aware of its limitations.

For this to happen, practitioners require journal access, CPD time, and also the skills to critique the research methods and statistics used. How can that be achieved? This BERA report sets out a vision of schools and colleges as "research-rich environments in which to work" (p.5). It's a radical idea, and one that asks us to reconsider the very nature of what teacher professionalism involves.



Biesta, G. (2007). Why “what works’’ won’t work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational Theory, 57(1), 1–22.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Major, L.E. (2014). What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. Accessed 14 May 2017 at 

Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1–62.

Hattie, J. (2013). Visible learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.

Kalyuga, S. (2007). Expertise reversal effect and its implications for learner-tailored instruction. Educ Psychol Rev, 19, 509–539. doi: 10.1007/s10648-007-9054-3

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Alexandra, V.A.: ASCD.

Zhao, Y. (2017). What works may hurt: Side effects in education. Journal of Educational Change, 18(1), 1-19.