The Science of Learning: How to Apply Cognitive Principles to Boost Your Course's Success

April 12, 2023

What is learning?

Learning is a process of acquiring knowledge or skills. It involves the brain's ability to change based on our experiences and environment, which allows us to learn new things. Learning can happen at any time during your life, from infancy through old age, but it happens most quickly when you're young (e.g., during childhood).

How do we learn?

Learning is a complex process that takes place in the brain. Learning occurs when we acquire new knowledge, skills and attitudes through experience or instruction. The process of acquiring these new skills is called "encoding", which means converting information into a form that can be stored in long-term memory.

Learning occurs when we encode information into our long-term memory through three types of encoding: sensory motor (we learn by doing), verbal (we learn by talking) and imagery (we visualise).

This encoding takes place during two phases, the acquisition phase where we acquire new knowledge or skill; followed by storage in our long term memory bank via rehearsal or repetition. When you are trying to learn something new you should make sure that you repeat it over time so it becomes part of your repertoire!

The Importance of Implementation Intentions

Implementation intentions are an important part of the learning process. They are mental plans that you create in order to increase your chances of following through on a task or goal.

You might also hear them referred to as "if-then" plans: if I am planning to go running after work, then I will put my running clothes in my car before I leave work so that they're ready when I'm done with my shift. Or if I want to eat healthier foods during the weekdays, then I will keep healthy snacks in my office desk drawer so they're readily available when hunger strikes during meetings or while working at home on weekends (or both!).

Implementation intentions can help you reach goals by removing barriers between intention and action, they help ensure that you follow through with what matters most because it becomes easier than ever before!

How to Incorporate Cognitive Principles into Your Course Design

When it comes to learning, there are many cognitive principles that can be applied to improve the success of your course. These principles are scientifically proven and backed by research. You don't have to take my word for it; you can do your own research! However, I will share some of my favorite cognitive principles with you here so that you can apply them in your own courses.

  • The first thing we need is a quick refresher on what a cognitive principle is: A cognitive principle is an idea or theory that explains how people learn best based on how our brains work (i.e., what we know about brain function). It tells us which methods should work better than others when trying to teach something new.*

You can use cognitive psychologists' insights to improve your course.

You can use cognitive psychology to improve your course. The study of how people think and learn, cognitive psychology has identified a number of cognitive principles that can be used to improve learning. These principles are based on decades of research into how people process information, make decisions, solve problems and remember things. Cognitive psychologists have found that these principles hold true regardless of age or culture, they're just as relevant for young children as they are for adults; they apply across cultures; and they're useful whether you're teaching an in-person class or delivering content online (although some may require adaptation).

If you want your students' brains to work better when they engage with your material, whether it's through reading articles from our blog posts on Coursera Learning Center or watching videos from our YouTube channel, then we recommend applying these five key principles:

Encourage learners to actively engage with the material through discussions, problem-solving, and hands-on activities to enhance comprehension and retention.

In order to be effective, a course needs to be engaging. A good way to do this is by using active learning methods such as discussion, problem-solving, and hands-on activities. Active learning helps learners develop critical thinking skills, which allows them to apply what they've learned in a variety of situations (like the real world).

It's also more fun for students! In fact, according to research conducted at Harvard University: "Students prefer active over passive learning methods."

Implement periodic reviews of previously learned material to reinforce memory and aid long-term retention.

The brain is a powerful organ. But it's also a messy one, and it needs help to remember things. One way we can do this is through repetition, which has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to learn new information and retain it over time.

The human mind is an amazing thing that allows us to think creatively, solve problems, express ourselves through language and art, and even remember where we left our keys! But how does this incredible machine work? How do we learn? These questions are at the heart of cognitive science (the study of how people think), which has been revolutionised by advances in neuroscience over the last few decades.

Combine various media formats such as text, images, videos, and audio to cater to diverse learning preferences and improve understanding.

When you're designing your course, one of the most important things to consider is how learners will interact with it. Some people learn best by reading text, while others prefer watching videos or listening to lectures. You should make sure that your learning material caters to as many different preferences as possible so that everyone can learn effectively and enjoyably. For example, if you're creating a video series on quantum physics for an auditory learner who has no background in science or math (e.g., someone who was never good at math), it would be helpful for them if each video included some sort of visual representation along with audio narration: perhaps animations showing how particles collide or diagrams illustrating how wave functions behave over time.

FAQs on cognitive principles for creating online courses

Delving into the science of learning can raise many questions, especially when applied to course creation. Our FAQ section is here to provide clarity and guidance, addressing common questions and concerns to help you successfully integrate cognitive principles into your online course.

How can I apply cognitive theory to improve your teaching?

Now that you understand how the brain learns, you can use this knowledge to improve your teaching. Here are some suggestions:

  • Teach in a way that mimics the way our brains learn best. The brain learns best when it is active and engaged with new information. It also helps to repeat what we want students to remember multiple times over different contexts so they can make connections between them. For example, if you want students to remember that Pythagoras' theorem states A2 + B2 = C2 for triangles ABC, then teach them using several different examples (triangles with sides 3 units long) before asking them for their generalisations about these relationships, and then test those generalisations by giving them more examples!

How can you apply cognitive science in your daily life?

  • Take breaks.
  • Use mnemonics to remember things.
  • Use your phone to help you remember things, or for language learning or organising your life.

How can I start creating online courses?

When you're ready to create your first online course, start by taking some time to think about the course idea. The best way to do this is by answering these questions:

  • What am I trying to teach?
  • Why is this important for my students (or me)?
  • Who are my target learners or clients?

Once you've got an answer for each of these questions, it's time to move on and create a course outline that includes all the essential parts of an effective online learning experience. Your outline should include:

  • An introduction that explains why people need this information in their lives and how they can apply it immediately
  • A series of lectures where we walk through each topic at length
  • Exercises at various points along the way so learners can practice what they've learned
  • Assignments at the end of each week so students can demonstrate what they've learned before moving onto next week's content (and then keep reviewing until test day!).
  • Finally, after completing all these steps, and not before, you should consider creating a syllabus as well as posting it somewhere publically visible like Facebook or Twitter so others know when/where/how often classes will take place.

How long should online courses take?

How long should an online course be?

The ideal length of an online course is 13-15 weeks. It should be long enough to cover the material, but not so long that learners lose interest and drop out. A survey of more than 2,500 students found they preferred learning in shorter chunks (over 20 hours), with one third saying they'd prefer a 10-12 week course and another third preferring 14-16 weeks.


So, how long should your course be? Well, that depends on what you want to achieve. If you want your learners to retain information for the long term, then longer is better. For example, research shows that a spaced-out learning schedule (with breaks in between) leads to better recall than cramming all at once or just once per week (Bandura et al., 1969). However, if your goal is simply for students to pass their exams or get through their degree program successfully in as short a time as possible then shorter might be better suited towards this end given that cramming doesn't necessarily mean they'll remember anything!

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You can check out the CourseApp home page or if you're feeling really brave Register an Account with CourseApp and create your own course.