Take advantage of how the mind works and use cognitive science for more effective lesson planning

The process of lesson planning is complex and presents many challenges. Every part of an effective lesson plan has an impact on the learning process for the student and it is therefore essential you use a strategic approach when writing them. There are many variables to take into account, including the profile of students within the class, whether the class is streamed or mixed ability and how confident you feel with your subject knowledge. This subject knowledge itself is a constant in the classroom; what differs is the approaches taken by teachers to teach the concepts. If subject knowledge is lacking in the first place, lesson planning becomes even harder – especially for new teachers, who are often overwhelmed by classroom management as well as trying to implement the lesson plan.

To support the lesson planning process and communicate it effectively to new teachers, I use four principles from cognitive science:

  1. Attention
  2. Working memory
  3. Long-term memory
  4. Cognitive load theory

These principles help inform the planning process and instructional design by taking into account how the mind works – and allow us to take advantage of the way it operates.

An illustration of four cards showing heads with animals in

Source: Composite image, all © Getty Images

Use these principles to inform your teaching and planning and improve learning outcomes

Down memory lane


All teachers can benefit from knowing that attention and working memory are limited resources. Attention is our capacity to concentrate on one thing and then be able to divert it to something else. An effective teacher pays attention to their students’ attention and amplifies the information they should focus on. For example, when giving lessons using slideshow presentations like PowerPoint or making worksheets easier to access using integrated instructions.

Working memory

Working memory is synonymous with awareness. We hold live information in our working memory, but because of its limited capacity it can be overwhelmed. The amount of information it holds varies from person to person, so teachers must recognise this when presenting information. Doing so in small manageable chunks improves access for all students and does not overwhelm the working memory. The working memory is also adept at both processing both images and listening simultaneously. Where it does fall short is with reading at the same time. Having slides with images, writing and the teacher talking over them means information is not communicated as effectively. This is because the student has three different stimuli to try and focus their limited attention on, which can hinder the learning process.

Long-term memory

The long-term memory (LTM) is thought to be where knowledge, skills and life experiences are stored. When you ask a question, it is held in the student’s working memory and the LTM is accessed to find any relevant information. If information is absent from the LTM, then the demand on the working memory increases and the learning process is harder. Therefore, the learning process will be more effective if you adjust your materials according to the working memory capacities of your students and their long-term memory knowledge. In practice, this demonstrates the importance of knowing your students and what they know already when planning your lessons.

Cognitive load theory

Cognitive load theory investigates the demands placed on the working memory and its interaction with the LTM. It can help explain some of the reasons why the working memory can be overloaded and learning hampered.

Cognitive load can be increased in different ways. Intrinsic cognitive load is associated with the core learning taking place – such as the inherent difficulty of the subject matter and the learner’s current level of expertise or capability. In contrast, extraneous cognitive load is determined by instructional procedures rather than the intrinsic nature of the information being learned, and can be alleviated by effective instructional design.

In your planning

With this in mind, when lesson planning we should take into account the limitations of the working memory and its interactions with the LTM. At the beginning of a topic, the learner’s subject knowledge and understanding is emerging, which means that the demands on the working memory are greater. As the topic develops and the learner is constructing their understanding of the topic, the demand on the working memory reduces. 

A diagram showing that as a student's knowledge and understanding increases the demand on their working memory decrease

Source: From the author

As subject knowledge increases during a sequence of lessons, the demand on the working memory decreases

It is also important to remember that these concepts of cognitive science also apply to student teachers and not just pupils in class. Patience is required as new teachers develop their own knowledge and skills in the classroom.

Furthermore, lesson plans should not follow exactly the same format throughout a scheme of work, because, to take full advantage of the way the mind operates, where you are in a sequence of lessons should determine how you teach. Each lesson should not be planned or delivered in the same way: early on in a sequence, more teacher-led instruction would be preferable to reduce the demands on the working memory; as the learner’s knowledge increases, teacher instruction could be reduced as knowledge becomes more readily available to students.

A one-size-fits-all approach to planning and observing could be seen as restrictive and not in line with a cognitive approach to lesson planning. For example, if an observer feels there was too much teacher talk in a lesson, this may have been because the teacher is at the start of their lesson sequence and would reduce this later on. A useful question for an observer to ask themselves should be ‘where does this lesson fit into the sequence of lessons?’ This question can help them to understand the intentions of the teacher and open up a developmental conversation.

Understanding and embedding the four principles of cognitive science takes time, but once fully integrated into the lesson plan, you will be able to teach in a way that is sympathetic to how we learn and, in turn, improve learning outcomes for all students.

Dom Shibli is a senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire and module leader for the secondary science PGCE