“Student learning is remarkably complex . . .” So begins the second sentence of a lengthy article proposing a research-based conceptual framework that identifies cognitive challenges to learning and how teachers can respond to them. The framework rests on three premises:
- “the focus of teaching should not be on how well we present information, but on how well we create conditions in which most students are able to learn”;
- “effective teaching is about adaptation to changing circumstances”; and
- “teachers need to understand how people learn” and teach responsively to those principles (Chew & Cerbin, 2020).
The framework organizes what pedagogical research has revealed prevents, inhibits, or otherwise diminishes learning. Teachers must overcome these cognitive challenges if students are to learn optimally. Illustrating the complexity of learning, each cognitive challenge may require more than one solution, which means that teachers must adapt to different and evolving learning needs. Moreover, the challenges do not operate independently of each other.
It may sound a bit overwhelming (and probably is), but the article is enormously helpful. The authors introduce each challenge with a short narrative example, followed by a description of the cognitive challenge, recommended teaching practices, and additional sources that the reader can consult. Below are brief descriptions of the challenges. Each is relevant to varying degrees depending on the student and the content.
- Student mental mindset: This consists of the attitudes, beliefs, and expectations about the course and its content that students bring with them. Is it a hard course? Can they do well in it? At one extreme, mindsets are fixed—effort doesn’t matter; either it can be done or it can’t. At the other, challenges are embraced because the mindset is one of growth and opportunity.
- Metacognition and self-regulation: These refer to the awareness and ability to regulate one’s thinking. Do students recognize when they aren’t paying attention? Do they know when they’ve mastered a concept? Can they make reasonably accurate predictions about their performance?
- Student fear and mistrust: Students may have math anxiety, but it manifests itself as fear when they finally show up in that required calculus course. Fear tends to be more prevalent when students feel vulnerable and makes it easy for students to misunderstand and distrust the teacher.
- Insufficient prior knowledge: Prior knowledge is the foundation on which new learning builds. Not knowing what’s needed to master new material may result from gaps in background knowledge or from coming to class unprepared.
- Misconceptions: In this case the student’s prior knowledge is inaccurate, which makes it difficult for them to understand what they need to learn. Misconceptions can be minor and easily corrected or major and resistant to change.
- Ineffective learning strategies: Research repeatedly documents the ineffectiveness of some of students’ favorite strategies, such as rereading, highlighting, underlining, cramming, and memorizing without understanding. Here the challenge is getting students to abandon what they continue to think works.
- Transfer of learning: Students can score well on exams and still be unable to apply that knowledge in a context other than the classroom. “Much knowledge gained in courses remains inert; it is not accessed or used beyond the immediate context in which it was learned.”
- Constraints of selective attention: Very little learning occurs without focused and sustained attention, and students are easily distracted. Despite what they think, students cannot multitask, and when they try to, learning usually suffers.
- Constraints of mental effort and working memory: This challenge involves cognitive load, which happens “when the demands of learning exceed the students’ cognitive capacities and resources.” A discrete amount of information can be processed at one time, and that amount is determined by the effort required to learn something and working memory, which can only hold a discrete amount of information.
Should an effective teacher be ready to address all nine of these challenges? Yes, and although it’s a big teaching challenge, some context puts the expectation in perspective. As the authors point out, some students are primed for learning, motivated, and ready to go. They have overcome these challenges. Other students learn despite experiencing some of these challenges, but they aren’t learning as effectively as they could; Chew and Cerbin describe this as “suboptimal” learning. Additionally, these challenges are not all new. We know that absent background knowledge, multitasking, and ability-based mindsets prevent learning, and most of us work to address these challenges. But laying out all the challenges sets a high standard. It shows us what’s involved when we recognize and grapple with the complexities of learning.
Every now and then I gush over an article, and this one deserves high praise. It is a pristine example of scholarship that can be directly applied to instructional practice. It maps the learning territory. We know that space and we work in it, but we do so on the ground, where it’s difficult to see the whole landscape. With a map of the territory, we wander less, can see where we’re going, and move in that direction with purpose.
Chew, S. L., & Cerbin, W. J. (2020). The cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The Journal of Economic Education. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220485.2020.1845266