Faculty Focus


Classroom Cognition: The Science of Learning in Lecture

Instructor sits at desk smiling at books with laptop open and taking sticky notes apart

This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on April 8, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

Students often put in a great deal of time and energy into learning course material, yet their efforts are often less than fruitful. Week after week, we witness students arriving to lecture—seemingly prepared—armed with planners, Post-its, highlighters, and tablets. With such obvious effort poured into their preparation, it can be tough to grasp why these same students are often performing poorly on exams.

It’s almost always the case that throughout their academic journey thus far, students have been taught what to learn, but seldom how to learn. Because of this, they are unknowingly employing study strategies that are highly ineffective. While their backpacks serve as arsenals for assumed GPA-boosting items, they fail to recognize that their most valuable tool is their brain. The following describes three common challenges experienced by students, along with some pointers for professors on how they can enhance student learning without taking away from precious lecture time.

1. Attempting to learn without context. To process information taught in lecture, students must have something to apply it to. Simply put, there must be some frame of existing context. In reality, many students are seeing the material for the first time in lecture, making it challenging for them to generate connections. What’s worse is that because this lack of understanding during lecture can overwhelm, students procrastinate on studying the material following lecture because they’re either disinterested or intimidated by the content. As a result, a wildly ineffective pre-test cramming session is sure to ensue.

Professor Pointers: One of the best investments in time a student can make is a 20-minute pre-lecture prep. Once students realize that this short preview of material will simplify their understanding of information during lecture, they almost always begin to include it in their study schedules.  For more details on the benefits and guidelines of this strategy, read Study Strategies for Before, During, and After Class. Starting the semester with an understanding that a pre-lecture prep is an expectation will benefit both students and faculty.

2. Underperformance caused by overconfidence. The more often students see information, the more confident they are that they’ve learned it. The familiarity gained by reviewing their class notes provides the treacherous illusion of knowing. The most common, and dangerous, challenge I witness in my work with students is their attempt to memorize information without a genuine understanding. Information must be comprehended to be processed and moved into long-term memory, but it doesn’t end there. To strengthen neural connections so as to retrieve the information readily during exams, the material must be retrieved often. In short, it’s not what students put into their brains, but how often they’re pulling the information back out that will create strong neural connections. This evidence-based learning strategy is called retrieval practice and it’s won popular acclaim in the world of cognitive psychology.

Professor Pointers: To measure how well students understand content during lecture, use some type of comprehension check at least once per class. If a student can teach the material to someone else, or at least summarize it in their own words, it shows they truly understand the information. To facilitate these checks quickly and easily, employ the tried and true turn-and-learn by asking students to turn to the person next to them and teach them what they’ve just learned. For a more professor-involved approach, utilizing apps such as Socrative and Padlet can offer an instant way to gauge students’ understanding. If you maintain a strict no-devices policy, tools like muddiest point papers and exit tickets work equally as well.

3. Stress and the learning brain. Because we are experts in our respective fields, we may find ourselves hyper-focused on our enthralling content, leading us to assume that students who appear to be inattentive are simply disinterested. Remember, those seemingly disengaged faces belong to humans who bring to class their own struggles and stressors. Intense stress causes not only difficulty focusing, but also drastically decreases the effectiveness of student learning. I highly recommend reading Judy Willis’ article, What You Should Know About Your Brain (referenced below). In it, Willis highlights the role the amygdala plays in routing information learned, and how the emotional state dictates this path. Essentially, when a student feels positive and open to learning, the amygdala routes lecture content to the pre-frontal cortex where the processing of information begins. In contrast, a sense of overwhelm causes information to be filtered to the lower, reactive brain where it is unlikely to be remembered.

Professor Pointers: While we cannot control what happens outside the classroom, we can offer a safe, nurturing environment during lecture. Start with something simple like beginning each class with a 60-second mind dump where students have an opportunity to write down everything that is on their minds, positive or negative, and then put it aside to focus on learning. This allows the thoughts to be validated, helping the student to compartmentalize between personal matters and learning course material. Another option is to dim the lights and play calming music for the first two minutes of class, letting students use the time for free writing or sitting silently with their thoughts. They may be apprehensive at first, but soon they’ll come to anticipate this reflective time.

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Angela Zanardelli Sickler is the associate director of the study skills academy at Wayne State University.


Boone, W., & Piccinini, G. (2016). The cognitive neuroscience revolution. Synthese 193 (5), 1509-1534.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Stylus Publishing, LLC..

Foster, N. L., Was, C. A., Dunlosky, J., & Isaacson, R. M. (2017). Even after thirteen class exams, students are still overconfident: The role of memory for past exam performance in student predictions. Metacognition and Learning, 12 (1), 1-19.

Nevid, J. S., Cheney, B., & Thompson, C. (2015). “But I Thought I Knew That!” Student Confidence Judgments on Course Examinations in Introductory Psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 42(4), 330-334.

Willis, J. (2009). What you should know about your brain. Educational Leadership 67 (4), 1-3. https://www.retrievalpractice.org