3 Ways to Use Cognitive Psychology to Improve Your Course

How to avoid browbeating your learners by turning psychology to your advantage.

In many ways, learning is all about psychology. It’s about finding ways to introduce ideas to ourselves in ways that will stick and be memorable. But for many of us, applying psychological principles to course design isn’t an obvious first step. After all, unless you’re interested in psychology yourself, you may not have considered how to use it in your course.

As it turns out, psychology—particularly cognitive psychology—has a lot of valuable lessons for e-learning. Here are three to get you started.

Concept distribution.

The arrangement of course content influences the way learners retain information. The more segmented your course content, the faster learners forget it once they move on to a new subject. However, by distributing information throughout your course in such a way that it is repeated and referenced frequently, you increase your learner’s chances of remembering it later.

This was something I learned first hand back in grade school while studying math. My early text books split subject material into units: we would spend a few weeks covering addition, then move to subtraction. At the end of the subtraction unit there would be a test covering both addition and subtraction, but after weeks without reviewing any addition, I’d have forgotten what to do.

After a few years, our curriculum changed to one that taught math concepts in smaller segments, and then offered problem sets that reviewed the previous month or two of lessons. By building complicated principles gradually and constantly reviewing prior subjects, my math proficiency skyrocketed. One of my most hated subjects became one of my most confident.

Online education can offer learners frequent check-in points to review earlier concepts, and formats can easily be broken down into more bite-sized chunks. This could be especially promising on mobile, where learners could easily review short lessons throughout the day.

Spaced repetition.

Another concept related distribution has to do with building memory recall through spaced repetition. Most of us, when actively attempting to learn new concepts, rely on old-fashioned methods such as re-reading course material or brute memorization. However, there are far more effective ways to improve memory recall, most notably using a spaced repetition system.

To understand how spaced repetition works, it’s helpful to first think about standard repetition methods. If you’ve ever tried memorizing lists of vocabulary, you’re probably used to covering one side with a sheet of paper, trying to remember the word, and then moving on if you get it right. You try to cram the new vocabulary words into your head until you’re pretty sure they’ve stuck, and then a week later you go to take a test and they’re all gone. What happened?

As it turns out, most brute memorization methods fail because they don’t sufficiently train memory recall. Furthermore, you waste a lot of effort studying words you already know, because they’re on your vocabulary sheet.

Spaced repetition shifts the focus off the ideas you already know and narrows your attention onto those you don’t. A spaced repetition flashcard system might have you start by practicing recall of a word or fact several times until you answered the question correctly once. Then it would move on to other cards, and after a few minutes would show you the original card again.

By spreading the space between review sessions, it trains your brain to recall the information better. As time goes on, the space between repetitions grows until you know the word well enough to retire the card. (Anki is a free spaced repetition flashcard program that I’ve used in the past, if you would like to try this method for yourself.)

Knowledge emotions.

Emotion researcher Paul Silvia suggests there are four “knowledge emotions”—surprise, confusion, interest, and awe—and that these combine with new concepts to form resilient memories. This makes a lot of intuitive sense: we know that emotions and memories share a strong link, and that we struggle to remember concepts when we’re in a bored or apathetic state (i.e. one lacking strong emotion).

Few of us think of “confusion” or “surprise” as emotions in the way that we think of “joy” or “fear.” But a closer look at the knowledge emotions shows some possible applications for online learning.

For instance, “awe” might be one of the more complex knowledge emotions to trigger. But, according to Silvia, when experiencing a state of “fascination and wonder,” learners are also more likely to feel more open to new concepts or ideas.

Music is strongly associated with states of awe, particularly music that spans a range of volumes, tones, and instruments. That doesn’t mean you should start inserting stirring classical music tracks into every course video, but there may be moments where doing so would have better success than a filler track that could just as easily be elevator music.

As for “confusion,” Silvia also suggests that “impasse-driven learning” helps learners retain information by challenging them to work it out for themselves, rather than being fed an answer. This may sound counterintuitive at first, but think about how popular various mental puzzles are—from crosswords to Sudoku.

For the most part, we like grappling with a problem so long as it seems solvable. The thrill of solving the problem boosts our confidence and encourages us to keep going with the lesson.

Psychology helps you work with your learners, not against them.

We’ve all heard the cliché about how to “work smarter, not harder.” It’s often used to describe productivity hacks, or clever ways to get something accomplished for less effort. Sometimes doing so comes at the expense of quality, or by taking ethical short cuts. But if there’s one place where this phrase makes every bit of sense, it’s when combining psychology with learning.

Cognitive psychology concepts aren’t about taking the easy road for expediency’s sake. They’re about using your strengths to your advantage—to using your brain the way it’s meant to be used. It’s not always easy to find a way to translate psychology to e-learning, but when done effectively, it offers tremendous gains for learners and instructors alike.

How might you use some of these principles in your course design?

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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