Takeaways on “Principles of Cognitive Science in Student Learning”

Principles of Cognitive Science in Student Learning 
by Dr. Janet Metcalfe, Columbia University, UNH Memorial Union Building

Lecture date: January 30, 2014

Commentary by: Amanda C. Morrow Jensen

Note: The subject headings and summaries are taken from the professor’s organizational structure and comments.
The “takeaway for online” sections are Amanda C. Morrow Jensen‘s commentary.


The area for greatest potential in learning is the region of proximal learning, i.e. things that students have almost grasped, almost learned, concepts that feel within reach. This area of acquisition engages curiosity and motivation. 

Takeaway for online: 
“If student is overwhelmed in the first 2-3 weeks, and feeling does not abate, student needs to possibly be flagged and given tutoring/Smartthinking at that time, or set up some type of face-to-face or synchronous interaction. Implications for earlier intervention using self-assessment rather than graded assessment.”


Non-substantive feedback is essentially useless. Even affirmations (i.e. “Well done!”) aren’t that useful. If the answer is right, an affirmation of how/why it is right continues the learning process. If the answer is wrong, corrective feedback on why wrong, and what is right is extremely useful. In neuroscience terms, this is, in part, due to the fact that creating an answer, being surprised by being wrong, or being clearly affirmed by being right, all engage different parts of the brain. It is, in basic terms, attention-getting. 

Takeaway for online:
re rubrics really giving corrective feedback? Is Grammarly better for students than rubrics? Could ideal online feedback be grammarly for writing, and substantive corrective feedback on subject matter concepts and analytical depth from instructor? Since follow-up questions are attention getting, might that be a good way to give corrective feedback online to “right” answers as a standard practice.”


Spacing the learning and revisiting it is extremely effective. Even a five to six day interval between review of materials is effective; in fact, such longer intervals are most effective. In multimedia terms, this is the equivalent of a TV show’s 30-second intro saying “Last week, our hero….” In learning, such spacing and quick review are hugely important for cognition. 

Takeaway for online:
“The module format naturally creates some spacing, which is helpful. Could the next module (modules 2-5) more deliberately link up the two concepts, and do a paragraph of review? Could final modules be heavier on review than on testing?”


Self-generated responses where the student actively searches for and provides the answer in a short time interval are far more effective means of teaching than reading materials or being read to, even if they get the answer wrong. The focus of this presentation was on showing how self-generation and engagement produces better learning results, even when the answers generated are wrong. Previously, it was thought that self-generating wrong answers may muddle the memory of the correct information, or confuse the learner long-term. Not so. The key combination is teaching the material, engaging the students in self-generation of responses, providing corrective feedback to those responses, and assessing answers again. The time interval can be delayed between each step; it need not be immediate. This process of learning correctly, even from mistakes, is known as “hypercorrection”. 

Takeaway for online:
“In a sense, self-generation is a form of testing, or testing as teaching. Online can ask for self-generation in a variety of ways: through scheduled Skype sessions for face to face self-generation, through software (think foreign language learning software here for a good example), or through carefully crafted assignments that build in this formula, such as an online discussion board that mimics the analytical skill and process of the subsequent test, where the board postings are graded with significant corrective feedback”


The most effective forms of self-generation are those called “on the hook” where the student does not know until called upon that they will be expected to generate the answer. Situations where a computer forces self-generation each time can be a close second, since this is essentially the student always being “on the hook”.

Takeaway for online:
“In some ways, these experiments on this final point quantify the sense that many educators have that online is not as effective as in-person teaching can be, but that online is not as vulnerable – or professor/student/format/schedule/personality dependent – as in-person teaching can be. Online’s ability to facilitate effective self-generation while still providing asynchronous, virtual learning is limited to the purchase and customization of sophisticated e-texts or software systems, which is not scalable on a course-by-course basis.”


The lecturer concluded by noting the potential for research in MOOCs, and how this work could make MOOCs more effective. She also noted that research into people with learning challenges (ADHD, TBI, etc.) would be useful in this area as well.

Takeaway for online:
“For the smaller online school (she was citing MOOCs enrolling 127k students in one course, where substantial investment in design is scalable), the takeaway seems to be to require some element of synchronous engagement that involves self-generation and constructive feedback (either online or in-person engagement). For online schools, or schools invested heavily in this area, it might be worth testing these approaches against each other: 1) using a software system, such as those that are designed for foreign language learning or a custom e-book with self-generation and corrective feedback integrated into the coding and delivery, facilitating computer-led self-generation; 2) via an online class that requires 3-4 synchronous video sessions focused on self-generation and corrective feedback; 3) via an online class that requires 3-4 face-to-face sessions focused on self-generation and corrective feedback – not lecture; and, 4) via a control group using the standard version of the course.”

Last 5 posts in Featured