By Erik Anderson

We are delighted to be able continue our ‘TILE Share Best Practice’ series by inviting Erik Anderson to talk about how he implements findings from cognitive science in the classroom. Many thanks to Erik for sharing his best practice!

Research Background of Implemented Practice

Research Background of Implemented Practice

In 2013 Dunlosky performed a meta-analysis of 10 learning techniques and their effectiveness.  Five of the most effective learning techniques were practice testing, distributed practice, interleaved practice, elaborative interrogation, and self-explanation (Dunlosky et. al., 2013). This is how the learning techniques were defined:

  1. Practice testing: self-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material
  2. Distributed practice: implementing a schedule of practice that spreads study activities over   time
  3. Interleaved practice; implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session
  4. Elaborative interrogation: generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true
  5. Self-explanation: explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.

Dylan Wiliam’s work on formative assessment focuses on how to increase the learner’s role in their education as well as using formative assessment to make teaching more responsive.  I employ this perspective when using Eric Mazur’s Concept Tests.

Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, wrote the book on Peer Instruction. His concept tests rely on providing students with multiple choice conceptual/application questions of intermediate difficulty where students discuss and explain answers to each other. This approach to peer instruction uses elaborative interrogation and self-explanation to have students critically evaluate their current conceptual understanding. See here for an overview of Eric Mazur’s concept tests and here for slides of one of his presentations.

Cognitive load theory (CLT) was developed in the late 1980’s by John Sweller, which posits that the amount of cognitive load taxes working memory which is used to learn new information. Cognitive load can be classified as intrinsic (inherent difficulty of the content), extraneous (load due to presentation of material) or germane (processing and incorporation of knowledge into schemas). The goal of CLT is to reduce extraneous load to free up working memory capacity in order to focus on germane load, and thereby enhance learning new information.

A 2013 study investigating how to improve learning in online lectures, Szpunar et al. found that memory tests that were interpolated within a lecture, an example of practice testing, was found to decrease mind wandering during lectures, and increase student retention and performance on summative assessment of content within the lecture.

My teaching strategy is based around practice testing, distributed practice, interleaved practice, elaborative interrogation, and self-explanation. I integrate these practices into one consolidated workflow framed around concept tests of current content, and uncovering of student misconceptions before a unit of study is begun.

Description of Teaching Practice

Description of Teaching Practice

To provide context, my class is an AP Biology class for 11th and 12th graders, with content at the level of an introductory college biology class. I have taught this course for two years and the first year I implemented most of this workflow during the second semester.  Later when I provide some evaluation on the impact of my practice, I compare the first to second semester of my first cohort, as well as a comparison between my first cohort and my current cohort.

Assigning Pre-Class Reading

The text I use (OpenStax AP Biology) is very detailed and often goes past the scope of the AP Biology course.  Instead of assigning the whole section I select specific sections and figures for students to read, and take notes, as well as provide a list of vocabulary terms for them to define using the texts glossary.  While I pair down reading to be highly targeted, there is a lot of reading for students to do. Anecdotally, I’ve been told by my students that my reading assignments take between 1.5-3 hours to complete.

I provide the students with scaffolding in the form of a graphic organizer which lists learning objectives and their associated essential knowledge statements. Students need to preview the graphic organizer first, then do the reading, followed by creating diagrams or notes in boxes paired with essential knowledge statements.  At the end of the reading assignment students are tasked with connecting 2 or more concepts together in a mind map.

The next day in class, students compare graphic organizers and assist/explain their diagrams/notes to their groups and see if they have any questions that they want clarification on.  This precedes our lecture and helps make it more of an interactive discussion as students have already reduced cognitive load by minimizing extraneous information.

The pre-class reading applies CLT by targeting content (reducing noise), providing students a scaffold (graphic organizer) that both highlights the major points and forces them to write concisely in the boxes provided.  Students then engage with peers in a collaborative generative exercise by elaboration of essential knowledge statements. This last part forces students to explain their notes in words others can understand and also helps the group to gain a deeper understanding as some in the group may have noticed details/connections that others had missed.

Supporting material:

Reading assignment-for all three topics in unit 2: Cells, Transport, Cell Compartmentalization

Reading Guide-for all three topics in unit 2: Cells, Transport, Cell Compartmentalization

Reducing Cognitive Demands during Teaching

In my lectures I present between 1-3 major concepts, which the students have read about and taken notes on before coming into class. At the end of each major concept I have a mini-quiz, which consists of two multiple choice questions from AP Classroom (an online platform the college board provides). One question is on the concept we have just covered and the other questions is from an earlier concept, thus making the mini-quiz interleaved and distributed.

I aim to provide my students with uncluttered slides that pair labeled diagrams or drawings with minimal text or statements (dual coding).  I use the statements to explain or describe the diagrams and encourage student questions and discussion where I clarify meaning and the level of detail that the course expects.

At the end of the lecture, either that day (if there is time) or the next class, we review questions which have been missed by over 50% of the class.

Lecture follows CLT by reducing the split-attention effect in that slides have minimal text and incorporate labeled diagrams or drawings.  Lastly, the students have already pre-read the content and generated their own scaffolded notes that they can annotate during the lecture.

The quizzes at the end of each major concept are an interpolated memory test which uses practice testing, interleaved practice, and distributed practice.  Chunked lectures (into major concepts) that are interpolated with memory tests (interleaved quizzes) have shown to reduce mind wandering, improve retention, increase note-taking, and improved learning (Szpunar et. al., 2013).  The quiz also provides a space for distributed practice as students are spacing practice from their earlier reading assignment to after presentation of content, and also they are answering questions on content that had been taught earlier in the course.

Active Learning during Lessons via POGIL and Modeling

The activities I insert into the unit at this point are more open-ended, exploratory, and guided inquiry-based.  Now that students have knowledge of the concept, I take 1 to 2 lessons for exploration and application, using AP Biology labs, process-oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL) and modeling activities.

There are 13 AP Biology laboratories which are linked to the curriculum. Based on time availability, I run the labs either as a standard lab (specific instructions) all the way to a more open format where students design questions and set variables.  Refer to the link attached on AP Lab 13 below where the content is enzymes and rates of reaction. I use six lab groups to investigate on a set of 3 independent variables (substrate concentration, pH or temperature). Each independent variable is assigned to a pair of lab groups.

POGIL are great guided inquiry activities where students work in teams, analyzing various models through guided questions to achieve a deeper understanding.  POGILs are meant to be run in groups with specific roles that encourage discussion, argumentation and justification of answers, with the teacher serving as a facilitator.  I have included the POGIL made for AP Biology Respiration (I use two POGIL’s in one lesson) to give an example for the style and type of questioning.

Depending on the concept/content, whole class modeling is an effective way for students to consolidate learning and explain concepts.  I provide my endomembrane modeling activity which was ran in a single class session. Students were given a task, and had to work together to figure out how to model it.  I included my activity instructions as well the video of my class’s end product.

These activities require students to generate an explanation for stated or observed information (elaborative interrogation), as well as explain how new information is related to known information (self-explanation).  They are also performed after students have done extensive reading, and gone through a lecture/discussion on the concepts. With a lower cognitive load , students are better equipped to take on higher order skills (analysis, synthesis, application, evaluation) needed in more open/inquiry based activities.

Supporting material:

AP Lab 13 Pre-Lab Questions

AP Lab 13 Enzyme Activity Background Information


Endomembrane Modeling Assignment

Endomembrane Modeling Video

ICT-Supported Formative Assessment  

My school has purchased the rights to use, which provides a bank of practice questions (both multiple choice and short/long answer) tailored for specific subjects.  The package also comes with feedback for students and the ability for teachers to select questions and make quizzes from the banks. After students have engaged in the more open ended lesson I give them a short quiz from AlbertiO that I have made, with half of the questions being about the current concept of study and the rest coming from prior material.  I have recently added a metacognitive component (thanks and credit to Dr. Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel) where students rate their confidence on answers first on a scale of 1-5 (5 being extremely confident). Any that they score a 3, they are allowed to review the content first before answering. Afterwards they compare confidence to marked answers.

Students are to take the quiz as homework and come to class with it already being completed.  They need to answer the questions from recall, without notes (unless they have a low confidence in their answer).  As a class we review the quiz and look at the most missed questions and discuss the answers. I usually begin by asking students to select one of the most frequently chosen distractors and to either change it to make it correct or to change the prompt so that the distractor is now correct. makes this process very efficient but the same activity could be made off of assessments from prior years, or other online banks.  Over time a person could create their own bank of questions for various concepts. I only have a maximum of 6 questions for any of these assignments, as my goal is to offer small chunks of practice for the current and past topics.

These cumulative quizzes are designed in such a way as to hit practice testing, distributed practice (the second time they have taken questions on the concept being studied), and interleaved practice (quizzes are cumulative from prior units).

Boosting Understanding and Critical Thinking Through Concept Tests

First step: Pre-quiz for distractors

Before students are exposed to the material, I design the questions by converting essential knowledge and learning objective statements from my curriculum guide (provided by the AP College Board) into open ended questions.  I put these into a google form and share them with students as an assignment for them to finish after they complete the prior units summative exam.

After collecting responses I review the answers and group common misconceptions together.  The next step is to cluster prompts and student responses into 5-7 concept questions. For questions where students seem to already have a good grasp, I do not include the prompt into the developing concept test.

After uncovering 5-7 questions where students seem to have a shaky understanding, I reword student responses so that they will not immediately recognize them when I administer the concept test.  I also tweak the questions to remove as much jargon/subject specific language as possible and aim for a conceptual/application question of intermediate difficulty. This pre-quiz serves as practice testing as it previews to be learned material for students.

Supporting material:

Learning Objectives/Essential Knowledge and Open Ended Questions

Google Form

Example of Common Misconceptions

Second step: Create and administer concept tests

Concept tests are designed by unit and based on the results of the pre-quiz given at the end of the last unit/beginning of the next unit.  These concept tests have 5-7 questions which hit the most missed concepts. The prompts are adapted from the questions in the pre quiz, and the distractors are adapted from student answers.  The questions and distractors are presented in google slides and students are given access to two google forms which have matching numbers along with options A-D as answers, no prompts or answers are given in the google form other then the numbers and the answers A-D so that students focus on the presentation and do not hunt for answers privately.

I tell students to answer the questions as well as possible.  We move through each question and after all answers have been submitted I view the responses with the students and get a breakdown for percentages of responses by question.  I write down numbers on the whiteboard for each question and list next to each number the top 2-3 answers, ranked from most to least chosen (e.g., 1 – C A B).

Then, as a class we go through the questions again except this time I assign one of the top distractors to 1-2 students in a group of up to 4 students.  I tell them that this is now their answer and that they have to argue and justify either for it or against it from the perspective of that prompt. This means that a student is not allowed to say that C is right because it is, or that C is wrong because A is the correct answer.  They must formulate an explanation/justification that says why C is correct or incorrect based on what the prompt is asking. I give them one minute to consider how to frame their argument. Then I let each distractor representative in the group have their time to argue for or against their answer.  We do this for every question that needs review (If over 80% of the class has selected the correct answer we move past that question).

For the second attempt I have students open up the second google form and we move through the questions again, this time it’s a bit quicker.  When all the answers are collected we review the responses again. By this time most of the class (over 80% has shifted to the correct answer), but for those questions which still have less than 80% agreement on the correct answer, I provide a mini lecture on those specific concepts immediately to address the misconceptions.

The concept test itself is another opportunity for practice testing, but it is a much more powerful formative assessment tool in how it forces students to go through elaborative interrogation and self-explanation.  This is an example of Dylan Wiliam’s take on formative assessment as a tool increasing the students role in their learning as well as requiring me to be a more responsive teacher. I have personally seen large improvements in my students summative performance during my first year when I moved to using concept tests, and even more improvement when I began to use their own misconceptions as distractors, which were collected from the pre quiz response.

I have included one of my current concept tests, as well as the two google forms I used for that concept test.  This material is also coming from the same unit pre quiz I included earlier so you can see the genesis of the questions.

Supporting material:

Concept Test: Unit 2

Google Form 1st Attempt

Google Form 2nd Attempt

Summative Test with a Distributed Practice Twist

This test is designed to have about 60-70% of content from the current unit of study, and the remainder of the content from prior units of study.  We have 75 minute blocks at my school so I create exams which are between 50-60 minutes long and model the AP Biology exam in structure.

Evaluation of Teaching Practice

Evaluation of Teaching Practice

In my first year of running AP Biology at my school, I ran most of my current workflow during the second semester.  When comparing students scores on summatives, I used the Science intended learning outcomes which are broken into knowledge, understanding and data interpretation.  There were modest gains in knowledge and understanding (average knowledge went from 76.6% correct to 79.7%, and average understanding learning outcome went from 66.9% to 71.5% correct) as well as some regression in data interpretation (73% to 62.3% correct).  Upon advice from my assistant principal, Ryan Campbell, I began to use student responses as distractors for half of the second semester. Knowledge scores jumped to 87.5% correct and understanding climbed to 84.3% correct, while data interpretation fell again to 60% correct.

In the following graph the x-axis categories are for the intended learning outcomes, K for knowledge, U for understanding and DI for data interpretation.  On the graph I compared the students performance on summatives between the three groups: before using concept tests (No CT), concept tests used (CT) and concept tests where students provided their misconceptions (CT w/student MC).

I had a hard time trying to understand what was happening with data interpretation skills.  One possible explanation is that my concept questions did not cover how to interpret or read data from graphs or tables, so concept tests did not help students understand how to interpret data.

Student comments

“Concept tests overall were very helpful because we had a chance to find out what we didn’t know. The group discussions were effective because we could explain concepts to each other… Also, we could learn from other students. Sometimes, peers can teach best because they can teach in a more simple manner. Some students might learn best with that 1-on-1 discussion-based learning. Re-instructing targeted topics was a great way to reinforce topics.” SL 2018/19

“…the concept test were really effective but only if the questions were difficult to answer. When the questions were hard to answer, more people got them wrong and that means more possibility for discussion and clarification.” KS 2018/19

“This (lecture before activities) was useful so that when we did the activities we would already understand…I think you should have more practice quizzes from the AP/Albert because it was very helpful and so was the POGIL…(Concept test) was also useful because it basically showed the main concepts of the unit that we had to understand in order to do good in the test (and) because we got to talk about the answers and kind of argue which one was the better answer.” NZ 2018/19

“One of my favorite parts of the current workflow is the amount of responsibility that we, students, now have. A few examples for this are; the homework before lecture days, the in-class POGILs, as well as the periodic group discussions and question time. All of these allow us to take out learning into our own hands, participating however much we like, and doing however much we think we need to do. If you are looking for any suggestions, I’m afraid I have none, especially after the addition of mini-quizzes to spice up the lecture days.” PS 2019/20

I’ve been a teacher at the high school level for about ten years. I began teaching in the US but after 3 years moved abroad and began work at international schools, starting in Seoul, Korea, and currently in Jakarta, Indonesia at Jakarta Intercultural School.  I believe that whatever someone does, they should always strive to improve through critical reflection and adjustment…you know, learning 🙂

I do my best to adopt this approach in my teaching (which is why my “best practice” is an amalgamation of a bunch of other people’s work!!) and encourage my students to improve as well.  Since beginning work on my pHD in Biology Education, my focus has moved towards cognitive science and how to make my practice more efficient at helping students to learn. You can follow me on Twitter: @erik_anderson20