Incorporating Principles in Cognitive Psychology to Improve Student Learning

students working on a problem in class

At the 2017 STEM FIT Symposium at Washington University in St. Louis, Mark McDaniel, PhD, Professor, Psychological & Brain Sciences, co-director of CIRCLE, and co-author of Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014), presented a plenary address on how research in cognitive psychology can support effective teaching practices and improve learning. Supported by laboratory and field experiments, many of the techniques McDaniel presented from the book can be applied to most academic subjects in order to promote student learning.

Henry L. Roediger, McDaniel’s co-author, previously grouped many of these same techniques into three general principles to enhance educational practice (Roediger & Pyc, 2012). Each principle offers an opportunity to consider how to incorporate research-supported practices for sustained learning. Brief summaries of the three general principles are listed below. I have also included a few examples found within the literature of how you may incorporate these principles into your teaching:

1. Distribution: How information is distributed can determine the level of sustained learning. Two effective strategies to distribute information: repetition and interleaved practice, offer ways to improve memory and retention. Repeating and revisiting key concepts and topics throughout the duration of a course can aid in long term memory and recall. Furthermore, mixing (or interleaving) new information with previously covered material can support more durable learning and benefit retention of information.

Consider reviewing topics covered in previous lectures at the beginning and ending of each class or including information from previous sections in homework assignments. Mix questions and topics throughout the course instead of teaching in a blocked or linear fashion. Mix problem sets instead of grouping into clusters in order to provide between-concept comparisons, improve proficiency, and promote retention for sustained learning. (Rohrer, Dedrick & Stershic, 2015; Sana, Kim, & Yan, 2017)

2. Retrieval practice: Creating sustained and effortful learning practices can help support retention of information. Instead of using repetition as a way to remember information, develop a sustained process of instruction where information recall is spaced over a longer period of time.

Offer low-stakes quizzes throughout the semester to help students reconstruct learning of course information. Also, encourage students to self-test by creating flash cards. Help students learn how to self-quiz using flash cards. Have students frequently shuffle cards they answered correctly into the deck until all questions are mastered. (Roediger & Pyc, 2012)

3. Explanatory questioning: Providing spaces where students can question course information can be a powerful opportunity for sustained learning. Two techniques to provide explanatory questioning are elaborative interrogation and self-explanation. Elaborative interrogation opportunities allow students to explore why certain information is true. When asking “why” questions, students are forced to incorporate existing information into their understanding of new concepts and topics. Elaborative interrogation also prompts students to think of similarities and differences between related topics. Similarly, self-exploration offers students a space to integrate new information with existing prior knowledge. Broadly speaking, self-exploration invokes metacognitive questioning in order to help students make personal connections to learning. (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013)

Incorporate active learning exercises like the “one-minute paper exercise” at the end of class. Ask students to write about why the topic may be relevant to their learning. Also, when introducing new material, ask students to self-explain, “What parts are new to me? What does the statement mean? Is there anything I still don’t understand?”

Consider incorporating each of these three principles into your teaching. What techniques will you use to effectively distribute information? How will you help students practice learning and re-learning course material? What teaching strategies will you use to help students retain course information? How will you make these techniques visible in your course design?


Brown, P., Roediger, H., & McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it Stick. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest14(1), 4-58.

Roediger, H., & Pyc, M. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition1(4), 242-248.

Rohrer, D., Dedrick, R., & Stershic, S. (2015). Interleaved practice improves mathematics learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 900-908.

Sana, F., Yan, V., & Kim, J. (2017). Study sequence matters for the inductive learning of  cognitive concepts. Journal of Educational Psychology109(1), 84-98.

Christopher Grabau is an Instructional Developer at the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at Saint Louis University.

This article originally appeared in The Notebook, the blog for the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at Saint Louis University. Reprinted with permission.