The EEF Report published
The EEF Report published

The EEF Report published

Last week I shared my thoughts and notes on Dr Tom Perry’s pre-publication presentation of Cognitive Science in the Classroom. Today (now a few days ago) the EEF full report, executive summary and methodology were released. The irony of avoiding “lethal mutation” is not lost on me, as a thorough 300 page report and protocol, distilled down to a 50 page Executive Summary, then four main findings, was swiftly re-shared with rather contradictory headlines: “Cognitive science classroom impact evidence ‘limited” vs “Cognitive Science strategies can help strengthen pupil’s learning.” Blackpool Research School. (Thanks to Prof. David Aldridge for sharing that observation.) I will leave it up to you to decided whether or not either headline is representative of the four main findings in the Executive Summary, let alone the full report.

Cognitive science principles of learning can have a real impact on rates of learning in the classroom. There is value in teachers having working knowledge of cognitive science principles.

The evidence for the application of cognitive science principles in everyday classroom conditions (applied cognitive science) is limited, with uncertainties and gaps about the applicability of specific principles across subjects and age ranges.

Applying the principles of cognitive science is harder than knowing the principles and one does not necessarily follow from the other. Principles do not determine specific teaching and learning strategies or approaches to implementation. Considering how cognitive science principles are implemented in the classroom is critical.

Principles of cognitive science interact and should not be considered in isolation from each other, or without taking into account wider practical and pedagogical considerations.

Another equally valid perspective, conclusion, would be to call upon researchers and teachers to work more closely together.

Even approaches with indicative evidence of promise like retrieval practice, spaced practice, and the use of worked examples are, as yet, only supported by a few studies that examine their impact in everyday classroom conditions—delivered by teachers over long periods of time.

Cognitive Science Approaches in the classroom: A review of the evidence.

Two cents

First, I respect that Dr Perry has responded to both compliment and criticism.

Second, had it not been for the end of term, I would not have had the time to read the full report. An executive summary is undoubtedly required. With the full report, I recognise that I am beyond my research methodologies and statistical knowledge.

The “current and potential impact on pupil outcomes of various cognitive science informed interventions and techniques remains uncertain.” Agreed. Incomplete? Ever thus. However, I would suggest that learning is a relatively universal process. Second, how much more is there to be gained from exploring the boundary conditions of subject, context, each pupil characteristics, even if I see a case for this. Then there is the added the caveat of “over time,” that demands an even greater commitment from researchers (both in time and cost).* That the uncertain and incomplete status of cognitive science “contrasts with a widespread positive view,” – may be fair conclusion. That this view is held by policy makers, inspectorates and teacher trainers, ups the anti and is important. This was not a point I had reflected on previously.

Research, like teaching, has its limitations. If every study was to be replicated to account for: age of learners (primary, secondary, tertiary), learner prior knowledge (low, moderate, high attainment), the nature of the subject (x10) and learning outcomes – “over time,” I am not sure anything paper would ever be finished! But before I do post this response, I am going to ask my applied research colleagues for their thoughts.

The essence of the email exchange offers a balanced and experienced outlook:

…we do need to be mindful when applying cognitive science principles to the classroom. But, when those principles have been well established within cognitive science, and have some evidence for effectiveness in some applied contexts, it is still worthwhile and beneficial to disseminate that to schools and educational professionals. And then to test it further.

Dr Amanda Waterman

Sage, inclusive, collegiate, end-to-end (from the lab, to applied, to classroom and back again).

Not for here – but one area of research I am keeping an eye on is the ManyClasses project.

I am one of those practitioners who is attempting to interpret, translate, and operationalise findings from basic science into theories or practices of classroom teaching and learning. Within my microcosm of teaching, operationalised routines varying between classes, let alone year groups, within the school, between schools and sectors. I have managed to fulfil the over-time investment, have explored Success Relearning (not listed in summary – an approach that combines retrieval practice and spacing), over the past 4 week terms or 18 months.

My last point is on the basic versus applied science.

Applied cognitive science is far more limited and provides a less positive, and more complex, picture than the basic science.

Cognitive Science Approaches in the classroom: A review of the evidence.

Quite rightly so. Classrooms are highly volatile, unpredictable and complex environments. It is not for that reason that Cognitive Psychologists work tirelessly to isolate and control variables in the lab? Have I missed something?

Teachers looking to apply cognitive science principles in the classroom will need to consider how, and in what conditions, approaches informed by cognitive science might improve learning.

Yes. As teachers do, and would need to do with any pedagogy routine, strategy or approach. But where to start if not on the advisory of cognitive science?

Meanwhile, we will get on with our applied research that is, quite coincidentally, looking at how to optimise “retrieval approaches (covert and overt) with optimised / personalised spacing, leveraging the metacognitive benefits of self-regulation and mitigating the influence of learner cognitive bias” in and beyond the classroom, with teachers and students. Learning does not only happen in the classroom.

In conclusion, it is hard to argue against the need for a “systematic review of classroom interventions, appraised in relation to both internal and external, ‘ecological’ validity.” The four main findings stand alone and when translated into “teacher” are quite familiar to most at the coal face. Effective, heartfelt teaching is complex and messy.

All this and I managed not to get too invested in the research itself on Spaced learning, Interleaving, Retrieval practice, Managing cognitive load, Working with schemas – that integrate and feature heavily in my teaching.

Knowing the lay of the land

If you are involved in the leadership of teaching and learning, “Practitioner perspectives on cognitive science,” p232 offers some fantastic insights, not least the heavy weight of self-directed and peer learning that accounts for the nearly 60% of the professional learning in Cognitive Science.


Why are highly scripted, standardised procedures consider less ecologically valid? Is the aim to test the science or the pedagogy?

Perry, T., Lea, R., Jørgensen, C. R., Cordingley, P., Shapiro, K., & Youdell, D. (2021). Cognitive Science in the Classroom. London: Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

Basic science. The study of phenomena and scientific laws, often referred to as ‘fundamental’ or ‘pure’ science.

Applied science. Using approaches informed by conclusions from basic scientific knowledge in practical, real world contexts

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