Workload: 4 ways the science of learning could eliminate time drains

Nov. 30, 2018
Kirsty Young

Kirsty Young

Tutor, Transforming Teaching

It’s all too easy to plough hours of time into lesson planning: creating PowerPoints or dreaming up novel ways to engage students.

But what if we were told that not only are these things a massive drain on teachers’ time, they are also largely a waste of time? 

Ask a teacher to talk about a time when the preparation and planning just didn’t seem to pay off in the classroom and they’ll have a dozen examples. My personal favourite was the time I spent nine hours producing a 110-slide PowerPoint involving Fluorine Fergie and Bromine Beyoncé in an attempt to bring displacement reactions in chemistry ‘alive’. 

Some might say it would have been worth it had I converted a complex topic into something students could understand, however the opposite was true. The students could remember none of the chemistry, and I had to re-teach the concepts, sans pop star analogies. 

Whilst they had perhaps found the lesson ‘engaging’ and ‘relevant’, what did they actually think about? They thought about Beyoncé.  

So how do we avoid such time drains? We need to get to grips with the science of learning - what cognitive science tells us about how we learn - and design teaching around that.  

I’ll briefly explore one aspect that will not only provide an evidenced-based key message, but will also reveal the practical implications, and hopefully inspire you to delve deeper into the science of learning. 

Key message: Don’t preoccupy yourself with making subject matter relevant to students.  


Sometimes teachers have a great idea for a lesson and spend hours planning and resourcing imaginative activities without considering their value in actually supporting student understanding.  

For example, if a teacher has students melting chocolate to learn about melting points or producing a PowerPoint to learn about World War II, what students will probably remember is melting chocolate and how to make a PowerPoint, and next to nothing about the chemistry of melting points and the causes of World War II (Willingham, 2010). Why is this? 

Your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about (Willingham, 2010), and what we think about is determined by what we attend to (Schweppe & Rummer, 2013). Simply put, “memory is the residue of thought” (Willingham, 2010). 

There are already a number of external and internal factors vying for students’ attention and filtering through all of this information uses up limited, valuable mental resources (Mccrea, 2018Willingham, 2017). Part of our job as teachers is to help manage students’ attention so they focus on the right things at the right time and aren’t distracted by the irrelevant.  

The goal should be for students to think about meaning and our lessons should be centred around this. In other words, don’t get hung up on trying to make subject matter 'relevant' or 'engaging', otherwise you might end up investing time in students remembering the wrong thing.  

Instead focus students’ attention on the meaning of the content and why it’s important:

  1. Review each lesson in terms of what the student will actually think about.

  2. Remove redundant information and distractions that detract from the meaning of the content (Mccrea, 2018).

  3. Use attention grabbers with caution, making sure the connection between them and the point it’s designed to make is explicit and not a distraction.

  4. Plan lessons so students have to think about meaning. For example, posing "how” or “why” questions tasks them to meaningfully organise information, such as compare and contrast (Didau & Rose, 2016; Mccrea, 2018), and give complex or abstract content meaning through concrete examples, stories, analogies and mnemonics.

This glimpse into the world of cognitive science is just an example of how knowing more about it could reduce or eliminate those time drains.  

All educators should know how we learn – from the trainee teacher to the MAT CEO.  

Only then can we start to unpick the complexities of what great teaching looks like, what actually works in the classroom, and ultimately what has the greatest impact on student learning. By doing what works - and only what works - we could avoid those time drains, save teachers’ time, and reduce teacher workload.  

Reference list:

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact. 

Didadu, D & Rose, N. (2016). What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology. John Catt Educational Ltd.  

Mccrea, P. (2018). Learning: What is it and how might we catalyse it? Institute for Teaching.  

Schweppe, J. & Rummer, R. (2013) Attention, Working Memory, and Long-Term Memory in Multimedia Learning: An Integrated Perspective Based on Process Models of Working Memory. Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 285–306.   

Willingham, D. (2010) Why Don't Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Jossey Bass. 

Willingham, D. (2017) Irrelevant interruptions and their cost to thinking.   

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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