Curricula can intentionally help students build knowledge through thoughtful design that attends to topic sequencing, scaffolding, and breadth and depth of content covered. But if the instructional design of a curriculum does not consider research on how students best learn and retain information, it will likely fall short in ensuring students build enduring knowledge.
Students deserve high-quality instructional materials that take into account how they best learn so that every child can achieve greatness.
What the Research Says
From cognitive science research and learning sciences research, we have a lot of information about how the brain processes and retains new information to store in long-term memory. Cognitive science researcher Daniel Willingham provides a helpful model for how thinking works in his 2009 book, which is excerpted in this article of the same name, “Why Don’t Students Like School?,” in which Willingham explains that the human mind does not like to think too hard—it does not want to solve unsolvable problems. When the human mind stays engaged with thought, it is because information from the environment and long-term memory combine in new ways. The combining of environment and long-term memory happens in working memory.
Willingham shares that successful thinking “relies on four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and space in working memory. If any one of them is inadequate, thinking will likely fail” (2009, 9). If a task requires too much reliance on working memory, the cognitive load becomes too challenging, and successfully completing the task becomes increasingly difficult. Therefore, a balance must be maintained between working memory and long-term memory such that new tasks and learning are able to draw on stored information and procedures so that individuals can focus on the new information with adequate supports from their working memory.
With a clear understanding of how the mind takes in, processes, and stores information, you may wonder the following: How should lessons be designed to help students manage their cognitive load and engage in richer learning and knowledge building? For that answer, we turn to learning sciences.
A key set of findings has emerged from the field of learning sciences around the conditions necessary for students to be successful in the classroom. These four findings include the importance of students building conceptual understanding, learning coherent and connected knowledge, learning authentic knowledge in its use context, and having opportunities to collaborate (Sawyer 2008). “The Science of Learning” (2016) summarizes existing research from cognitive science about how students learn and connects the research to its practical application in the classroom. This side-by-side research summary and classroom practice guide highlights the research base for instructional practice. Key practical implications for the classroom include the following and target the need to help students have sufficient space in their working memory to engage in new knowledge acquisition.
- Coherence: A coherent curriculum is important to ensure students have the prior knowledge or prerequisite knowledge needed to engage with and master new ideas successfully.
- Pacing: The use of worked examples and scaffolds, multiple modalities to teach a concept, and carefully paced explanation can help reduce cognitive load for students as they learn new information.
- Practice: Students need opportunities to engage with and practice their new knowledge in meaningful ways. Students retain information best when they revisit the knowledge over time, including through spaced practice and interleaving.
- Spaced practice is providing students opportunities to revisit content over time, which supports long-term memory storage and retrieval.
- Interleave practice is providing students the opportunity to practice different types of content or skills rather than focusing exclusively on one type at a time.
- Fluency: There are certain facts and procedures that, if committed to long-term memory, support learning as students will have more working memory available if those facts or procedures are not occupying working memory space.
Lesson Design at Great Minds
Our curricula—Eureka Math2™, PhD Science®, and Wit & Wisdom®—were developed with cognitive science research and learning sciences research guiding the instructional design. Our lesson structure supports the type of learning that research shows is most meaningful for students and helps them build enduring knowledge. Every lesson across all content areas includes a Launch, Learn, and Land section. Each of these lesson structures serves an important role in creating the cognitive conditions that are optimal for student learning by attending to students’ cognitive load and including instructional practices that research shows best support long-term retention of information.
Part 1: Launch
The Launch portion of each lesson provides students an entry point into the day’s content by teeing up key concepts and questions that will be the learning focus for the day. The two-fold goal of Launch is
- to help students pull from their long-term memory into their working memory any key prior knowledge that will support them in the learning for the day and
- to help students see the intended outcome of their learning as a question to solve or problem to resolve so they understand what their learning is building toward.
Retrieval from Long-Term Memory for Use in Working Memory
Cognitive science research finds that to build new knowledge and have it stick, a careful balance must be struck so that instruction is engaging for students but not too challenging or too easy that they disengage (Willingham 2009). How does Launch accomplish this goal of activating prior knowledge to support future learning? By using the Launch activity to ask students to pull forward relevant information through answering questions, approaching a problem, or discussing concepts that will be key to the content focus for the day.
Forecasting the Lesson’s Learning Goal
Through the Launch portion of the lesson, educators also help students see what question they’re trying to answer or problem they’re trying to solve through the day’s learning. By doing so, educators help manage the cognitive load for students so they can meaningfully engage in the work. When students know why they’re focusing on specific content and concepts, they are primed to make meaning of the learning, attach it to appropriate prior knowledge, and apply their existing knowledge to new contexts. Understanding the learning goal also supports students in seeing the coherence of content in their lesson in support of the learning goal as well as the coherence from lesson to lesson.
Willingham (2009) argues that when the cognitive conditions are not right to support learning, students like school less. One solution he offers is to make sure students see what question they are trying to answer or outcome they are trying to achieve in their learning, perhaps framing it like a problem to solve, so that students experience the satisfaction of problem solving.
Launch serves as an opportunity to help students begin to make connections between their prior knowledge and new learning for the day, which supports enduring knowledge building as they start to see the coherence in their learning and how one lesson, concept, or idea builds over time. When students approach new content with these conditions in place, they are better prepared to focus on the productive struggle presented in the heart of the lesson—Learn.
Part 2: Learn
The Learn portion of every lesson is the primary focus of instructional time. In Learn, students are introduced to the new content for the day and engage with the content in ways that increase the likelihood that they will make connections to their prior learning and incorporate the new information into long-term memory. Learn is designed to support coherence in learning; to help manage the pace of learning so students have time to work with their new information in multiple ways; to connect new information to existing information, thus encouraging students to practice what they already know and apply that knowledge in a new context; and to support fluency in skills, procedures, and routines for students so they can focus on building content knowledge.
Curricular Structures to Ensure Learning and Retention
Since students have limited capacity in working memory, instruction must be structured so that students are not presented with too much information to process. If learning is presented too quickly or with too little time to process, students are unlikely to be able to transfer that information from their working memory to their long-term memory. Therefore, instruction must be carefully paced and sequenced to ensure the cognitive load does not grow too burdensome for students.
A coherent curriculum manages cognitive load by providing students with a logical sequence of information that ensures students have prior knowledge relevant to new learning. It provides tasks that help students easily connect their new knowledge to what they already know. And when the curriculum strategically revisits content over time, students retrieve prior knowledge and use it in their working memory to solve new problems—strengthening their long-term memory. Instructional routines, drawn from research in the learning sciences, can support this work in daily lessons, giving students opportunities to connect what they know to new information and problems.
Instructional Practices to Support Knowledge Acquisition
As Willingham discusses, cognitive load can be managed partially through committing some facts and procedures to memory. Our instructional design takes this best practice to heart, encouraging students to commit to memory some facts and procedures across content areas. In addition, our instructional design includes recurring instructional routines that become predictable to students but are varied enough in type and recurrence as to not become monotonous.
In “The Science of Learning” (2016), the authors share the following five evidence-based practices teachers can use in the classroom to support students in learning and retaining new information.
- Assign tasks that require students to provide an explanation or meaningfully organize the material.
- Help students create meaning for hard-to-remember content.
- Review content over weeks or months, increasing the likelihood the students will remember the content in the long term as they’ve been asked to recall it at spaced intervals (spaced practice).
- Use informal assessments to help students recall information, as trying to remember information makes it more likely that the information will stick long term.
- Vary practice of different types of content so students are not exclusively focused on one skill, procedure, or set of information (interleave practice).
The instructional routines in all Great Minds curricula align with these evidence-based must-haves and support students in engaging in the type of learning that cognitive research finds is best for long-term knowledge acquisition. Instructional routines vary by content area in terms of type of number, but they are consistent in their goal of supporting content knowledge and process development by providing students with a structured approach to think about a topic, question, or idea. Students also internalize these instructional routines in time, both within a school year and across grade levels, taxing working memory less over time such that students can focus on the what of learning rather than the how.
Instructional routines help reduce cognitive load for students because they are repeated processes that students gain familiarity and facility with over time and allow students to focus deeply on the content they’re presented as they’re asked to question, share, and articulate what they are learning. The ways students are asked to manipulate information through these instructional routines support students in meaningfully organizing and explaining the material, which supports long-term knowledge acquisition. Additionally, instructional routines can provide students opportunities for spaced practice of skills and processes at different points in time and with different content, helping them to solidify these skills, processes, and content in long-term memory, which will free up working memory for more complex content across lessons and grade levels.
Part 3: Land
Much like Launch serves as an entry point to the day’s lesson, Land serves as an opportunity for students to reflect on their learning and for educators to take stock of student understanding to prepare for future instruction. Land can help students see how the day’s learning fits into the larger learning of a topic or a module, supporting students in seeing the coherence in their learning. Further, Land can provide another opportunity for students to practice their learning in a slightly new context to help solidify the learning and provide educators with an informal assessment of what students learned and where they may need further instruction and support.
Learning-sciences research shows that information is more likely to be incorporated into long-term memory when students have more opportunities to work with the information and make it their own. In each lesson’s Land, students have the opportunity to do just that by summarizing their learning from the day. This summation takes different forms over time but can include a Quick Write, answering a question, or working a problem. Land also often intentionally creates an opportunity for students to close the day’s learning with content that is relevant to the next day’s lesson.
Students often need repeated opportunities over time to secure knowledge in their long-term memory. Land provides an opportunity for teachers to see how well this process is going for students—how have they made meaning of the content? What knowledge has taken hold? What misconceptions have developed? When teachers reflect on the work from the Land section, they can determine the appropriate supports, scaffolds, and practice students may need moving forward to keep building knowledge.
Knowledge Building Requires Support Structures
Research studies consistently show that students learn more when exposed to a content-rich, knowledge-building curriculum that features coherent topics and a logical progression of skills and content. Content-rich materials are only part of the learning equation. Students are more likely to retain what they have learned and build upon it when the learning structures reflect learning science research. A well-structured curriculum will attend to both the content and the method of delivery to ensure students have ample opportunities to work with the content so that they can meaningfully retain the information and build enduring knowledge on their road to achieving greatness.
Deans for Impact. 2016. “The Science of Learning.” Accessed August 31, 2022. https://deansforimpact.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/The_Science_of_Learning.pdf.
Sawyer, R. Keith. 2008. “Optimising Learning: Implications of Learning Sciences Research.” Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Accessed August 31, 2022. https://www.oecd.org/site/educeri21st/40554221.pdf.
Willingham, Daniel T. 2009. “Why Don’t Kids Like School?” American Educator. Spring 2009. American Federation of Teachers. Accessed August 31, 2022. https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2009/why-dont-students-school.
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Jenny has over a decade of experience in education policy and research. She has worked with states and districts on the development and implementation of college and career readiness policies, especially around the implementation of rigorous standards and high-quality instructional materials. She has extensive knowledge about K–12 standards, graduation requirements, assessments, and accountability systems nationwide. Additionally, she has conducted research for school districts to address pressing needs in those districts. Jenny received her B.A. in English and education from Bucknell University and her M.Ed. in education policy from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.