Thursday, February 27, 2020

Coronavirus and climate change should accelerate online education and training...

We've just seen Salesforce and workday cancel large conferences due to the Coronavirus. Facebook has abandoned a global marketing event in San Francisco scheduled for next week, and the massive Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona was scrapped. The hit already to the global conference industry isn estimated at $500 million. Cramming large numbers of people into small rooms like lecture halls, classrooms and large rooms like conference centres has two major problems. First they have to get there, increasingly from all corners of the globe, exacerbating climate change. Secondly, the risk of accelerating contagion in a pandemic. There are many other reasons for questioning these old habits, and habits they are, but these two are serious, current, some would say existential, threats.


The Coronavirus has already resulted in a huge effort in China to educate people online, at home. Universities will see the stark consequences of projecting unending growth from the Chinese market. Travel restrictions apply to students – you don’t get dispensation because you have lectures to attend. Suddenly that forest of cranes and those student accommodation blocks look a bit wobbly. 
More than this, some of the early viral spreads, for example in Germany, came from a training conference. They are almost the perfect vehicle for the spread. People fly in from all around the world. It only takes one infected attendee, and a few thousands fly back to their different continents and countries. Conferences are like cruise ships in that they cram people into a stuffy, confined space for a few days, then send them home.

Climate change

Flying academics all around the world may seem like a virtuous thing only if you see academe as being immune from the moral charge of aiding climate change. It’s a huge business and, of course, people will defend such events to the death… which is starting to look like a possible outcome. Far too little use is made of conference tech, which is largely free or very cheap. The sharing of screens, documents and presentations has become trivial. The sight of a swarm of private jets at Davos literally disgusted ordinary people but that is nothing compared to the day in, fay our conference business. Let’s not kid ourselves that these are practical venues, the perennial attraction of Vegas, Orlando and Hawaii remain dubious.
Similarly with students, the enormous cost of flying, usually wealthy students, around the world or on Erasmus schemes, is often seen as a moral duty, whereas, it may turn out to be morally bankrupt. We should be encouraging students to study nearer to home, to stop excessive air and other forms of travel. Getting large numbers of students to turn up for lectures (actually very large numbers don’t turn up at all) is starting to look dangerous and dated.
Companies still send large numbers of employees to exotic locations for  annual ‘conferences’, much of which can be achieved online. This has already happened in most large companies as online learning now has deeply embedded roots in these cultures.

Peak stuff

Newspaper circulation has plummeted and my phone delivered an unlimited amount of knowledge and communications that., in the past, would have been infrastructure heavy and hugely wasteful. Paper production is a massive, global polluter on land, water and air. It is the third largest industrial, polluter in North America, the fifth biggest user of energy and uses more water per ton of product than any other industry and paper in landfill sites accounts for around 35% of all waste by weight. Recycling helps but even the deinking process produces pollutants. Paper production still uses chlorine and chlorine based chemicals and dioxins are an almost inevitable part of the paper production process. Water pollution is perhaps the worst, as pulp-mill, waste water is oxygen hungry and contains an array of harmful chemicals. Harmful gases and greenhouse gases are also emitted. On top of this the web has given us the sharing economy, where bikes, cars, rooms and so on can be reused and shared. It would seem as though we're nearing what Ausuble called 'Peak Stuff'. This is all good as the best type of energy saving is not using energy at all or at least minimising the effort and resources needed.


Huge numbers of people are now working from home, using conference technology and doing less ‘travel’. Huge numbers are doing degrees without going near a campus, except for their graduation. Rather than being the solution we may very well be part of the problem. Isn’t it time to make a pledge to reduce some of this waste and madness?
Policy Connect recommends that we support the UK’s digital economy to grow further through energy-saving technology innovation. Government, industry and the learning world must ensure our digital backbone is both efficient and effective into the future. To that end ICT solutions have the potential to enable a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions of up to 15.3% by 2030. This also means that the public sector, with its influential spending power, must lead by example in taking forward an ‘energy efficiency by design’ approach to delivering digital services – that means education. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Bjork – Illusory learning… the solution… desirable difficulty…

Robert and Elizabeth Bjork are outstanding researchers on learning, the optimisation of memory in particular. The Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab is a trusted source for contemporary research on cognitive science and learning theory. Their focus on memory led to research with real recommendations on how to teach and study, with a particular emphasis on effortful learning using desirable difficulties,

Illusory learning

Their starting point, based on evidence, is that many learners are mistaken at best, at worst delusional, when it comes to judgements on whether they have learned things or not. Learners may feel as though they have learnt knowledge or skills but subsequent tests often show that they have not. This is why self-reporting is not a valid method when reporting learning. This illusory or delusional view of learning is very common and results in shallow teaching methods and inefficient study strategies. The Bjorks believe that both teaching and learning can be improved and optimised by introducing techniques that force cognitive effort. Note that Richard Bjork also played a role in researching the lack of efficacy in learning styles in Paschler (2008).

Desirable difficulty

Learning should not be made too easy. Counterintuitively, making learning too easy may lead to easier forgetting. This is because desirable difficulties lead to deeper cognitive effort and processing. Desirable difficulties result in better long-term retention and examples of desirable difficulties may be spaced-practice, interleaving and retrieval practice. Desirable difficulty can also mean that you have to work that little bit harder to learn. But they call upon several techniques to provide desirable difficulties in learning, including but not exclusively:

  • Retrieval practice

  • Spaced practice

  • Generation

  • Interleaving

Retrieval practice

Do not read repeatedly and underline text, look away from the page and try to recall what you think you know. This act of recall has a strong reinforcement effect and results in higher retention and subsequent recall. The effort in processing increases remembering. Note that retrieval practice is not a test or assessment strategy but a learning experience. It is the repeated act of retrieval that is the most powerful learning experience. This is why frequent quizzing and testing can be a powerful teaching method. In online learning, retrieval can be made more effortful through open input questions.

Spaced practice

Spaced practice has also been shown, from Ebbinghaus onwards, to provide desirable difficulty, making learners repeatedly retrieve what they think they know thereby increasing retention and recall. This is not easy to implement but there are many techniques, offline and online that can be used. Topping and tailing with summaries of what was learnt last time, formal nudging, even use of social media are all possible, as are the use of online tools that automate and personalise the practice. It is frequently built into adaptive and personalised learning systems, like Duolingo.


Generating words and knowledge is better than simply reading text. It would appear that this act of generation provides the context for greater subsequent recall. 


Interleaving, avoiding long sequences of similar material, interleaving very different learning tasks or variations on that task, increases retention, recall and skill acquisition. This may seem counterintuitive but shows that, rather than learning one thing for a long time, many things can be interleaved, to the benefit of the learner.


When we are aware of what makes us learn better and actively monitor this process, our study practices and schedules change. The Bjorks recommends that learners be taught good learning practices, such as retrieval, interleaving and spaced practice to increase their efficacy in learning.


The Bjorks have taken known practices in learning, and used controlled studies to show that, with changes in practice, we can learn more efficiently. Learning professionals and learners often engage in practices that are sub-optimal, worse still, they may inhibit efficient learning. Their recommended techniques may seem counterintuitive and difficult to implement as they run counter to most current practice but the evidence suggest that he is right. We see these recommendations increasingly used in education and training as those who both teach and learn become aware of these techniques. Technology has also allowed retrieval practice, interleaving and spaced practice to be more easily implemented over time on a personalised basis.

Ericsson - Deliberate practice… retrieval cues…

Anders Ericsson is a Swedish psychologist and expert on memory, expertise and the role of ‘deliberate’ practice. He is regarded as the father of a model of expertise in which experts are shaped, not by talent but the amount and type of practice, they employ in becoming experts.

Memory and retrieval cues

Ericsson’s work on memory, specifically the role of working memory, and practice, has led to the training of students to remember an astonishing 100 digits (now over 450 with deliberate practice). In particular he explored the role of role of working memory in experts and high performers. He proposes a model of memory where experts use ‘retrieval cues’ in working memory that give access to long-term memory. This skilled memory theory has been tested in domains such as mental calculation, medical diagnosis, and chess.

Classic study on practice

Anders Ericsson’s study on musicians at the Berlin Academy of Music is a classic. He put the violinists into three groups:

  • Best - word-class soloists
  • Good - professional musician
  • OK - music teachers

Then he asked them about how often they had practiced. All started at around age five and had a similar pattern of practice in those first few years of about 2-3 hours a week.  Thereafter differences arose, so that by age twenty, there were:

  • Best - word-class soloists – 10,000 hours
  • Good - professional musicians – 8,000 hour
  •  OK - music teachers – 4,000 hours

He then looked at amateur pianists and found that they practiced around 3 hours a week, clocking up around 2000 hours by age twenty. How do you get to Carnegie hall? Practice, practice, practice. Note that this was caricatured as a general 10,000 rule, especially by Malcolm Gladwell, something Ericsson doesn’t propose. Another interesting aspect of his study was the complete absence of ‘natural talent’. There were no professionals who hadn’t practiced to the higher level and, just as interesting, none that had practiced this amount and failed. Talent seemed almost absent, hard work produced results.

Deliberate practice

Ericsson has explored the role of practice, not only in sport and music but also in areas where different cognitive skills are employed, such as chess and medicine. Several dimensions have been identified as characterising ‘deliberate’ practice, as opposed to simple repeated practice.
1. Concentration
Psychological attention and focus is vital, as deliberate practice has to move beyond repetition to pushing oneself incrementally beyond what has been achieved.
2. Chunk skills
It is not that practice alone matters but that a certain type of practice matters. More rapid improvement occurs if the learner breaks tasks down into chunked skills and focuses on improve on each component.
3. Feedback & error
It is also important to focus on feedback, either from the learner’s own observations or from a coach. Feedback matters, as it is from errors that one learns the most. Overcoming observed errors is the means of increasing skills. Failure, therefore lies at the heart of deliberate practice.
4. Increase challenge
Fourthly, learners must increase the level of challenge to accelerate the power of practice. This can be achieved by; getting faster, going for longer and simply making the task incrementally more difficult, beyond your comfort zone.

Experts bred not born

Education, training and online learning have an emphasis on knowledge that, on the whole, ignores deliberate practice. Opportunities for deliberate practice are largely absent from learning delivery, except where spaced-practice, simulations or opportunities for practice in the real world are built in to the process.

Talent management myth

Despite the evidence that ‘deliberate practice’ is the real cause behind success, the ‘talent’ model is still common, in teaching, the perception that learners’ progress through talent and not effort. This, many argue, holds back learners and results in many giving up prematurely. Too many parents and teachers still praise the child and not the work. This problem is compounded by the language of the ‘talented and gifted’, backed up with unreliable evidence, selective recall, false memories and biases. Research is the answer to bad reporting and Ericsson has been instrumental in providing that evidence.


A welcome antidote to social constructivist theories, Ericsson focuses on the mind, memory and deliberate practice as the road to successful learning. Far from being an advocate of rote learning, he is an advocate of sophisticated, incremental steps in learning, with feedback and challenge that lead to increased performance. This is all too often absent in learning, whether in the acquisition of knowledge or skills.


Ericsson, K. Anders, Krampe, Ralf Th. and Tesch-Romer. Clemens (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406
Ericsson, Anders K.; Kintsch, W. (1995). "Long-term working memory". Psychological Review 102 (2): 211–245.
Ericsson, Anders K.; Charness, Neil; Feltovich, Paul; Hoffman, Robert R. (2006). Cambridge handbook on expertise and expert performance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Ericsson K.; Prietula, Michael J.; Cokely, Edward T. (2007). "The Making of an Expert"Harvard Business Review (July–August 2007).
Ericsson, Anders K.; Roring, Roy W.; Nandagopal, Kiruthiga (2007). "Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance"High Ability Studies.

James (1842-1910) – Father of modern psychology... learn by doing...

William James, close friend of the Pragmatist philosopher Charles Pierce and elder brother of Henry James the novelist, asked his younger brother to stay close for six weeks after he died, as he wanted to try to contact him from the next world. No messages were ever received but it showed how seriously he took real inquiry and experimentation. He first studied medicine, then empirical psychology in Germany (starting the first psychological laboratory in the US at Harvard) and later in life, a philosopher.

Widely regarded as the father of modern psychology, his The Principles of Psychology (1890) setting the tone for future inquiry into the mind, establishing psychology as a separate discipline; the scientific study of the mind. Grounded in his philosophical theory of pragmatism, James’s theories emphasised the consequences of one’s actions, and the development of habits, rather than pure theoretical speculation.

Learning by doing

Like Locke, he wrote a practical book Talks to Teachers (1899), originally a series of lectures, giving practical advice to teachers. The difference is that psychology had now become, through his efforts, a science, and its principles could be used in practice. It was here that he put forward his now famous theory on learning by doing. This was to heavily influence John Dewey, and the future of educational theory through to Kolb, Schank and others. The book doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, as psychology is a science; teaching an art. But some psychological principles are clear.


James was the first to see emotions as an important constituent in psychology. They were not some correspondence between physiological events and conscious feelings but actual perception of those processes. Although Cartesian in essence, James saw the emotional world as a primary part of the stream of consciousness and therefore the process of learning.


Like Locke, he believed that education is, above all, the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behaviour. Children should not be expected to learn by rote. Their experiences must be turned into useful and habitual behaviour through action, as early as possible. This automaticity makes some cognitive tasks easier, freeing the mind for other higher goals. There is then combination of heart, head and hands here that is beyond pure cognitive structures, a bodily, biological basis for habit. The learner must listen, but then take notes, experiment, write essays, measure, consult and apply. He warned us against seeing this as a purely scientific approach to learning. 

The supervision of the acquisition of habit is another of his principles. “Habit is thus the enormous flywheel of society” and should be exercised until securely rooted. The result of almost all learning is this habitual behaviour encouraged in suitable learning habitats, which include self-interest, reflection, efficacy and control matter as these are what drives one towards gaining suitable habits. Human association, interest, attention, will and motivation; these are James’s driving forces in education. In addition there is memory, curiosity, emulation, constructiveness, pride, fear and love - all impulses that must be turned to good use. This is not to say that he favoured a lazy, or what he called ‘soft pedagogics’. He recognized that learning was sometimes hard, effortful, even arduous.


He warns us against reading too much in science, itself a changing feast, as it helps but does not wholly inform real, situated practice in the classroom.

He recommends learning through work and the creation of real things or dealings with real people in, for example, a shop, to give you educational experiences beyond mere theory. He was in fact a firm advocate of vocationally oriented schools and work-based learning. Learners are real, human beings situated in the world and have to see the connection between what they do and its consequences in that world.


Russell roundly attacked James Pragmatism claiming that it was ridiculous to say that “other people exist” means “it is useful to believe that other people exist”.  that Someone who holds a pluralistic position must also accept that their own theories are just one or some, among many. This paradox haunts pragmatism. It is related to another criticism, that of relativism. Once the relativist genie is let loose, it is hard to decide on which of the available perspectives is either right or the right pragmatic course of action.


William James proved to be a turning point in the history of both psychology and educational theory. He set both off in a more orderly fashion, introducing the scientific study of the mind as applied to learning. This has since proved to be by far the most fruitful approach to education and learning theory, although still often ignored. In particular, his emphasis on learning by doing still reverberates through Dewey, Kolb and others. James warned us about being too academic and imbalanced in our educational systems, ignoring the vocational and learning by doing. This is a lesson that has been ignored but many countries are now looking at rebalancing their national systems towards the vocational.


Myers, G (Editor). William James: Writings 1878-1899, Library of America
Myers, G (Editor). William James: Writings 1902-1910, Library of America
James, William. (1899) Talks to Teachers
James, William. (1899) The Principles of Psychology
James, William. (1899) Pragmatism
Putnam, Hilary. (1995) Pragmatism: An Open Question, Blackwell

Dewey (1859 - 1952) – Habits, practical and problem-based learning

John Dewey was a philosopher with a deep interest in politics and education. Dewey spoke out against communism as well as the right-wing threat in US politics, including what he saw as reactionary Catholicism. He was a typical American liberal believing in a secular approach and reform in education, moving it beyond the limitations of traditional ‘schooling’. Did you know that Dewy headed up the commission that investigated Trotsky in Mexico? He also took an interest in finding out about how schools operated with trips to Japan, China, Mexico, Turkey and the Soviet Union. 

As a philosopher he was what is called a ‘pragmatist’, a school of philosophy that picked up on ideas from the German idealism of Kant (Dewey’s doctoral dissertation was on Kant) and Hegel, and later emerged from Pierce and James in the 19th century. 

Education and society

As befits an American with strong democratic beliefs, he saw education as leading towards the enhancement of and authentic participation in a democratic nation. His reflections on the nature of knowledge, experience and communication, combined with his views of democracy and community, led to an educational theory that started with a broad based vision of what education should be, an identification of educational methods and a practical view of its implementation. He practised what he preached through his own elementary ‘Laboratory School’.

Schools – realisation through practice

That schools had become divorced from society was one of his basic claims. He was refreshingly honest about their limitations and saw schools as only one means of learning, ‘and compared with other agencies, a relatively superficial means’. In fact, he was keen to break down the boundaries of school, seeing them as a community within a community or an ‘embryonic society’. Schools are necessary but must not get obsessed with streaming, testing and not be overly academic in the curriculum. They must reflect the real world, not sit above and apart from society. 

His Pragmatist beliefs led him to believe that schools should create real-life, learning opportunities that could be put into practice, by engaging in occupational activities, as practised by the rest of society. He was keen on ‘occupational’ learning and practical skills that produced independent, self-directing, autonomous adults. In his model school, the students planted wheat and cotton, processed and transported it for sale to market. It was about fulfilling the potential of the many, not the few.

Problem based learning

John Dewey, like Socrates, was a philosopher first and educational theorist second, and like Socrates, his progressive educational theory has been simplified to the level of caricature. It is often assumed that he favoured an extreme version of student-centred or discovery learning but this was not in fact the case. In Democracy and Education (1916) he presents a sophisticated interplay between teachers and students, where the teacher must not simply present the subject matter but pay attention to efficacious methods of instruction and meet the developmental needs and interests of learners 

He is best known for his scientific or problem-solving approach to learning, presented in How we think (1910).  In line with his view that science, experimentation and practice lay at the heart of learning, for both a person and society, he encouraged innovation and abhorred dogmatic principles and practices. For Dewey, exposure to certain types of learning experiences are more important than exposure to others but his concrete advice is often absent.


Dewey was not, as some assume, a full-on progressive and had little time for Rousseau’s free approach to the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Structure and teaching were important. Perhaps his most important contribution to education is his constant attempts to break down the traditional dualities in education between theory and practice, academic and vocational, public and private, individual and group. This mode of thinking, he thought, led education astray. The educational establishment, in his view, seemed determined to keep themselves, and their institutions, apart from the real world by holding on to abstract and often ill-defined definitions about the purpose of education. Aghast at the teaching of religion in schools he also thought that high-end social theories such as neo-Darwiniasm, capitalism and socialism were inappropriate and was against those who believe in dogmas and ideologies.

Habit and practice

Dewey, like Pierce and James, in Human Nature and Conduct (1922) saw ‘habit’ as a fundamental mover in learning. Not the mechanical reinforcement of habit, not the exercise of pure reason but the active formation of emotion and reason in tandem, an active process with biological, cognitive and moral components. He is a post-Darwinian thinker, who sees in habit a flow of given, learnt and social dispositions. Education is a social function and habits are social functions. In Democracy and Education (1916), he promotes diversity of interests, pluralism, experimentation and freedom of thought, where changes in social habit are also important to overcome the barriers of class, race and geography.

Communication  and dialogue fuels democratic social action and move individuals towards growth with democracy and science providing degrees of consensus, to encourage this type of growth.


Many criticise Dewey as being a man of his day, subjecting himself to uncritical, faithful adherence to science and capitalism. Critics suggest that this is not truly diverse and pluralistic, as it does, as mIll noted, lead to the tyranny of the majority. He was, despite his pragmatic bent, also non-specific on many aspects of teaching and learning. leaving is somewhat in the dark on detail.


Dewey is a child of the Enlightenment, a believer in social progress, a progressive thinker, not a traditionalist. His reputation was and continues to be global, although his practical influence tended to be at the academic and policy level. He forced us to see education as not the teaching of a fixed canon but a dynamic process in dynamic democracies. There is much to be gained by seeing pragmatism as a way of eliminating faddish and non-evidence-based practice in teaching and learning. Their belief that biology, emotion and reason guide inquiry is also useful, along with the focus on habits obvious in Pierce, James and Dewey.

His pragmatic ethos also aligns him with those modern thinkers who support a rebalancing of education away from the overly academic, towards more vocational skills, such as Shank, Caplan, Sandel and Goodhart. Interest in experiential learning, through Kolb and others, has its origins in Dewey. His views on schools and how they relate to a modern, democratic society are also of lasting interest, going back to his ideals of the role of education in creating autonomous citizens in the context of a greater good. Those who see a more active role for schools in their community can benefit from a re-reading of Dewey, as he raises important issues about the relevance of education, the destructive institutional practices and the lack of practical, pragmatic, vocational and life-skills teaching.


Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press.

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (Revised edn.), Boston: D. C. Heath.

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education, New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963).
Dewey, J. (1929) Experience and Nature, New York: Dover. (Dover edition first published in 1958).
Campbell, J. (1995) Understanding John Dewey. Nature and co-operative intelligence, Chicago: Open Court.
Ryan, A. (1995) John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, New York: W. W. Norton. 

Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) - Forgetting curve… primacy & recency…

Hermann Ebbinghaus published a landmark book in 1885, Uber das Gedachtis (On Memory), translated into English in 1913. In this he put the study of memory on a sure, scientific footing using rigorous experiments, exploring retention and the effects of sequencing and patterns of practice on memory. Indeed, most subsequent research into learning and memory has been footnotes to his work.

Decay from memory

In perhaps his most famous experiment, trying to remember syllable lists, he found that after certain periods he remembered only a percentage of the original: after 20 minutes 58%, an hour 44%, 24 hours 34%, 31 days 21%. This was the ‘forgetting curve’. In other words, within a month, nearly 80% of the learned content had been lost. But the real lesson was that most of the loss came in the first few minutes. The distinction between short and long-term memory was made, and it became clear that successful learning had to push knowledge from short to long-term memory to be successful. Of course, it is not simply a matter of practice and reinforcement, related meaning and the organisation of the material are also important.

Spaced practice

A less well known, but just as significant, discovery was the benefit of distributed or spaced practice. Distributed practice is spread out over a period of time, whereas massed practice takes place in one session. The spacing out of practice seems to avoid fatigue effects and lead to more consolidation of memory. 
Spaced practice, despite being well known since Ebbinghaus first suggested it as a solution to his forgetting curve, remains a rarely practiced technique in learning. The reasons are obvious enough. Most education and training delivers isolated doses of learning, lectures, presentations, classroom courses and the learners walk out of the door at the end, job supposedly done. Teachers had no real way of getting to them after the event had finished.
There has been a resurgence of interest in spaced-practice, as most learners now have devices, such as mobiles, that allow the personal delivery of spaced learning events. These systems use algorithms to determine what is delivered and when to optimise the learning experience.  

Primacy and recency

Ebbinghaus also discovered the serial position effect. In remembering lists, he observed that people are far more likely to remember items at the start and end of lists. These effects are called primacy and regency. It depends on the nature of the material, the relationship between the material and users approach to learning, but by and large the principle is that material from both ends of a learning experience are retained more than the stuff in the middle. This has been confirmed many times since.
Take the example of the Presidents of the US. Most people remember Washington and the more recent Bush and Obama. Incidentally, many people also remember Abraham Lincoln, confirming another psychological effect in learning, the von Rector effect (1933). He found that the more something stands out from the crowd, the easier it is to remember. In a specific experiment by E.J Thomas in Studies in Adult Education (1972), it was found that there was a massive dip in attention and recall from the middle of lectures. In other words, in lectures and the classroom the effects of primacy and recency are profound. Primacy, and especially recency, have also opened up avenues of research, especially in providing clues for working hypotheses on how working memory operates.


Some argue that learning theory is fundamentally memory theory and if William James is the father of psychology, Ebbinghaus is the father of memory theory. He was the first, great experimental investigator into memory, and quickly saw that most learning leads to forgetting. The whole idea of forgetting is still all too absent in education and training with little attention given to reinforcement methods and spaced practice. He covered most of the major findings in this area and many of his central conclusions remain intact and instructive. Although his investigations really only apply to relatively, simple, rote learning, he opened up avenues of inquiry that have led to astounding progress in the psychology of memory.


Ebbinghaus, Hermann (1885). Translation of Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Sweller – Cognitive Load Theory – less is more

John Sweller, an Australian psychologist, has championed the awareness of working memory for teachers and developed ‘Cognitive Load Theory’. He thinks that awareness of the nature and limitations of working memory make better teachers and learners.

Primary and secondary knowledge

Sweller starts with the evolutionary psychologist Geary’s position on primary and secondary knowledge in The Origin of Mind. We have evolved brains that have intrinsic, biologically primary learning abilities or modules, that allow us to learn some things with ease, such as listening and speaking our native language, facial recognition, folk biology and folk physics. But our plastic frontal areas allow us to override this with our biologically secondary learning, which we have to acquire, such as a second language, reading, writing, maths and so on. It is this secondary knowledge and learning that Sweller focuses on.

Working memory

Conscious, working memory involves cognitive load, how that working memory deals, or doesn’t deal, with new or novel knowledge. There are two major limitations, capacity and duration. First, it is very limited in capacity as we are only capable of dealing with between two to four elements held at any one time, when trying to solve a problem. Second, we can only hold information for around 20 seconds. However, we also have and rely on long-term memory as our major, larger form of memory, which has no real limits on capacity or duration.
Long-terms memories can be taken back into working memory with relatively little effort, often instantly. This is why it is vital that we get knowledge and skills into long-term memory, so that we can utilise it quickly in working memory. The oft quoted example is our times-tables. We use that form of mental arithmetic often enough to find it useful to get many calculations memorised in long-term memory for instant recall. Once information gets into long term memory, we can then take it back into working memory, transfer it back without effort. So working memory is limited when dealing with novel information. Its effectively unlimited when dealing with processed, stored information that we get from long term memory. 
These ideas are critical, because they tells us how to engage in instruction. We engage in instruction in order to get information into long term memory, because once we get that information into long term memory, we're transformed. We become different people. We can do things we couldn't dream of doing otherwise. He argues that an understanding of this is vital if we are to design courses and teach effectively.

Multiple elements

When the brain has to deal with multiple elements of information, difficult material, and you have to manipulate or process those different elements, working memory can struggle. It imposes a heavy working load on working memory – that is cognitive load. Sweller argues that this happens all the time when teaching maths, languages even on PowerPoint presentations. Learners take notes because they know, instinctively, what cognitive load means, that they forget things quickly if they are not stored somewhere – either on paper or in long-term memory. Yet instructors continue to make the same mistake of overloading through their own instruction or proxies like PowerPoint.

Instructional design

The teacher, instructional designer and interface designer all have to be aware of how to reduce cognitive load. His advice is that less is more and that redundant, extraneous material has to be removed. With animation, audio and video, things are transient. The stream and flow forward and we can only hold 2-4 elements in working memory for 20 seconds. Without getting that information into long-term memory it will simply be forgotten, like a shooting star your memories literally burn up behind you. Flowing media don’t allow the manipulation and processing necessary for encoding in to long-term memory, so give the illusion of learning.

Intrinsic and extraneous 

Intrinsic cognitive load is the load complex material places on working memory. It is subjective, intrinsic and there’s not much you can do about it. Extraneous cognitive load is in the designed instruction and can be redesigned to reduce cognitive load.
Sweller thinks this theory of cognitive load explains why worked examples are superior to problem solving or discovery learning. The worked example is there and you can be shown step by step, whereas with problem solving, you need to manipulate all of the elements before you have understood simpler relationships.


Sweller has had gained a strong following among those who believe that cognitive load theory has much to tell us about practical teaching and learning. He gives clear guidelines on quantifying cognitive load but also on how the theory informs teaching and instructional design. His work is backed up by researchers such as Richard Mayer and others. In sort, less is more.

Tulving - Episodic & semantic memory

Endel Tulving, in 1972, made an important distinction in our long-term memory between episodic memory (remembered experiences and events in time and space) and semanticmemory (facts, ideas, concepts, rules independent of time and space). This was largely based on an analysis of internal memory states, and the experimental testing of memories, an anathema to pure behaviourists. It was also confirmed by brain damage studies. His 1983 paper Elements of Episodic Memory has become a classic in memory theory.

Episodic and semantic memory

Episodic memory is important for our sense of identity, in that it places us in ‘time’ and helps define who we are. Episodic memory makes time travel in our imaginations `possible, a skill that stood us in good stead when remembering past experiences, predicting future events and deciding what to do based on this recalled knowledge. This cognitive function must have played a significant role in our evolutionary past. Semantic memories, stored categorically, are quicker to recall than episodic memories that are stored temporally.

Elaboration through cues

Episodic memories are encoded, Tulving has shown, through cues that overlap the memories themselves. These cues allow retrieval. The theory therefore explains memory failure, not so much in terms of memory decay, as failure in retrieval. Research on cues and retrieval have shown that context and physical environment do improve memory, encouraging the view that learning should take place in the context in which it is likely to be used. Semantic memories may be turned into episodic memories through loci and peg systems. For examples historical personages or sequences placed along a known route.
Encoding is perhaps the one area of memory theory that has the most direct impact on learning, as understanding encoding can led to both better teaching and better learning. Tulving showed the importance of cues and when learners make the effort to identify and note down cues they improve retention (an obvious example is mnemonics). We now know the difference between maintenance and elaborative encoding strategies. (Elaborative encoding leads to deeper processing and therefore better learning.) We also know that the organisation of learning is important in terms of relating new learning to previous knowledge, emotional and context.

Online learning

Does the distinction have relevance for the use of technology in learning? Media mix is one area of interest where one tries to match the appropriate media to the most appropriate type of memory, as well as using useful cues. Video and the use of scenarios to illustrate behaviour may appeal to episodic memory and the contextual cues may be more appropriate for learned behaviour in specific real world contexts. Semantic knowledge needs a different approach to media. This distinction is often ignored as people use their preferred medium rather than thinking about the type of learning and memories they want to embed.


Tulving’s work distinguishing episodic from semantic memory is important for those who teach or learn. It is an important guide for pedagogy in terms of what medium one should use as well as appropriate cues for encoding and retrieval. He has given us the theoretical understanding that supports the use of tools that encourage the organisation of learning and content. Memory is not monolithic and Tulving showed us that the differences are instructive.


Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving and W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of Memory (pp. 381-402). New York: Academic Press.
Tulving, E. & Madigan, S. A. (1970). Memory and verbal learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 21, 437-484.
Tulving, E. (1983). Elements of Episodic Memory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything. New York: Penguin Press.

Tammet, D. (2009). Embracing the wide sky: A tour across the horizons of the mind. London: Hodder Paperbacks.