Monthly Archives: January 2023

Demos for Teachers #3: Deep Processing

This is my favorite cognitive psychology/teaching and learning demonstration because the resulting data is evidence of possibly the most important lesson we should take away from memory theory. As Daniel Willingham said: “Memory is the residue of thought.” One of the most important ideas we should build learning experiences on is this: the more deeply we think about something, the more likely we are to encode those thoughts into long term memory.

This is a foundational idea, but we often forget it. As students, it’s tempting to use study methods that feel good and are less effortful, but effortful studying is more likely to involve deep processing and increased learning. As teachers, it’s easy to fall prey to the curse of knowledge and fail to attend to the cognitive work students need to do to learn.

In about 15-30 minutes, this depth of processing demonstration can help “prove” the learning value of deep processing by gathering data “live” in a class or professional learning session. Here’s a more complete write up of the activity – Depth of Processing

  • Look through the slides for the activity to make sure the directions make sense, and make sure everyone has a way to write down responses (paper/pencil or digital response)
  • By the end of the activity, everyone will have a list of words they remembers from the 20 “A/B” word list, and they will have “scored” how many A words and B words they remembered.
  • Ask participants to report their number of A and B words somehow (recording the distributions on a white board or google form)
  • At this point it should be pretty obvious that participants remembered more B words than A words (usually about 2 more words on average).

As you discuss with participants why we remember more B words than A words, the point of the activity should emerge out of the data: we remember more B words because the activity requires participants to deeply process B words, while A words are only shallowly processed.

When I get to discus this activity with teachers and students, we often gradually get to a simultaneously mundane and profound realization: the “harder” we think about something, the more likely we are to learn it. While this shouldn’t be a surprising conclusion, it starts great conversations about studying and teaching. If we accept this basic, foundational fact, then one of our most important jobs as students becomes figuring out how to deeply process what we need to learn. How to pick study methods that “force” us to deeply process information. And our job as teachers becomes crafting learning experiences that increase the chances that students will do the deep processing cognitive work that is likely to result in encoding to long term memory.


Demos for teachers #2: Close your Eyes…

Image souce: the great Oliver Caviglioli

This is the demonstration I keep in my “back pocket” and break out when I cover a class for another teacher. It doesn’t require any equipment and it’s bomb proof: it works every time, and you can use it to start discussions about hypothesis testing, or just get students cognitively engaged in thinking about how their own memory systems work.

The demonstration can also start super useful discussions with students about how they might do more useful cognitive work in class, and with teachers about how they might communicate ideas with students more effectively. It is a replication (sorta) of research done by Alan Baddeley. see the more complete write-up of the demonstration here – Baddeley’s Three Systems of Working Memory . Here’s a brief outline:

  • Ask students to close their eyes.
  • Instruct them to mentally count (don’t count out loud) the number of windows in the place where they live. They can open their eyes when they are done.
  • Ask them to close their eyes again and say “Please count the number of words in the sentence that I just said.” Repeat that sentence a couple times.
  • As they try to do that task, you might see them counting on their fingers. That’s a good sign.
  • When most of them are done, ask them to open their eyes.
  • Ask “How many of you used your fingers when you counted the windows?” One or two people might raise their hands (often no one will).
  • Ask “How many of you used your fingers when you counted the words?” Almost everyone will raise their hands.
  • Start a discussion about why that happened. These are two very similar mental counting tasks. Why did almost all of us use our fingers on the word task but not the windows task?

At this point you can list proposed explanations (hypotheses) on the board and alter the task to test them one by one, if you have time. Some explanations may get close to Baddeley’s and other cognitive psychologists’ findings: it turns out that working memory is a complex system with important “moving parts.” I like to think of these aspects of working memory as a boss and two employees (the great graphic by O. Caviglioli at the top of this blog post might help visualize these employees):

  • The boss is the “central executive” – this part of working memory monitors incoming information/stimuli and figures out what to do with it.
  • The visuospatial sketchpad employee: deals with images
  • The phonological loop employee: deals with numbers or words.

The specialties of your two employees explain this strange difference between these mental counting tasks. During the “count the windows” task, the central executive tells the visuospatial sketchpad employee to picture each window, and the phonological loop employee counts each one. Easy! No fingers needed! BUT during the “count the words ” task, the central executive needs someone to repeat the sentence that was just said since the sentence is made up of words. The phonological loop employee is perfect for that task. But now the central executive has a problem: the visuospatial sketchpad employee can’t count! So almost all of us need to use our fingers to count the words in the sentence. (Note: if you’d like to read more about this research, check out Dual Coding theory)

Cool, right? But it’s more than just cool: this detail about how our working memory operates implies some potentially important lessons for students and teachers:

Implications for studying: since we can’t concentrate on words coming in from two different sources at the same time, we may want to be careful about taxing our “cognitive load” for incoming verbal information. This may be why many of us find it difficult to read or process words while there is music with lyrics playing in the background. But the potentially more important implication for studying is that we may want to use graphics or diagrams as we study and try to make sense of words in our notes or a textbook. We can use our visuospatial sketchpad (images/diagrams) and our phonological loop (words and numbers) simultaneously to deeply process meanings and make them easier to recall later. Check out this Learning Scientists blog post for great “dual coding and studying” ideas.

Implications for teaching: After reading dual coding theory, I realized to my horror that one of my teaching habits is a BAD idea: I used to project slides with a bunch of words on them, and I would then talk over the slide, including examples of the concept, elaborating on the ideas, etc. I thought I was helping, but what I was probably doing for most students is overloading their phonological loops. Many students were probably trying to process the words on the slide (in their working memory, using their phonological loop), AND trying to understand what I was saying at the same time, overloading the same working memory system. Oops. Now I try to include only a few words on a slide (or an image) and then I talk through the concept, so that students’ phonological loops and working memories stand a better chance at processing the concept we’re discussing. Related idea: Just add blank slides.

Demos for teachers #1: Tappers and listeners

I love talking with teachers and administrators about cognitive psychology research and how these findings relate to teaching, learning, and assessment. One effective way to start these discussions is to use a “demonstration” – reproducing (at least in a limited way) a key study related to a cognitive psychology concept, and talking about what the data mean about how we think and learn.

This first demonstration – Tappers and Listeners – demonstrates the overconfidence effect. I have a more complete write up of the demonstration here – – but here’s a brief summary:

  • Students work in pairs – one student is the tapper and the other is the listener.
  • Tappers think of a very common song. They get a minute to communicate the song to the listener by tapping the rhythm.
  • Before the task, tappers estimate the % chance the listener will guess the song. Record each estimate.
  • After the task, calculate the % of listeners who successfully guessed the song.
  • The resulting data will most likely show evidence of overconfidence. The tappers’ prediction of success will be significantly higher than the actual success rate. When I use this demonstration with large enough groups of (15+), the tappers group is usually about 60-80% confident in their success, and they are only about 30-50% successful.

This demonstration is a mini-replication of E. L. Newton’s dissertation research . Generating and seeing data of the overconfidence effect “live” with a group of teachers is a great way to start discussions about how overconfidence may impact teaching and learning:

Overconfidence and studying: students are often overconfident “study-ers.” Many students use less effective study methods (like re-reading notes or a section of a textbook repeatedly) and are (over) confident that the study method will help them recall the material. This overconfidence may prevent them from trying more effective study methods (like free recall/retrieval practice). (Reference: Roediger and Karpicke, 2006.)

Overconfidence and teaching: this demonstration can also lead to a potentially important conversation about teaching. The overconfidence effect and this demonstration support the conclusion that humans are overconfident about many of our predictions. Teachers are human (last time we checked) so we should probably admit that the overconfidence effect probably leads us to some inaccurate estimates, including our perceptions about whether students are learning what we intend. If teachers are in some sense, “tappers,” and if tappers are overconfident, then we should remember that it’s likely that we overestimate how many students are “hearing the song” we are tapping. If we “go with our gut” about whether a class is “with us,” we may be fooling ourselves. This admission might lead to a discussion about the importance of quick, instant ways of checking for understanding from all students.


Newton, E. L. (1990). The rocky road from actions to intentions. (dissertation).

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention. Psychological Science17(3), 249–255.