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Could This Cognitive Psychologist Change the Way You Teach?

When Dr. Michelle Miller saw there was a dearth of evidence on learning theory, she wrote the book on it—to the benefit of educators and students alike.


Michelle D. Miller, PhD

Professor of Psychological Sciences, Director and co-creator of First-Year Learning Initiative at NAU, Redesign Scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation, Northern Arizona University

PhD, MA, and BA in Psychology

Miller is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in College Teaching, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, and The Conversation.

Michelle Miller, PhD, remembers all too well how little was known about memory two decades ago when she began teaching at the college level.

At the time, she frequently worked with graduate students who served as teaching assistants (TAs) in her larger classes and, not surprisingly, much of her time with them was spent teaching them how to teach.

Often, they would bring her information they had found on the Internet about learning and memory. While their ambition was encouraging, Miller—whose area of expertise was cognitive psychology—was dismayed. “I’d [read an article and] say, ‘Oh, that’s really wrong,’” Miller recalls. “There just wasn’t anything out there on teaching that was grounded in research on the ways in which the mind processes information.”

So she decided to create some reliable, evidence-based materials—not only for her TAs (and her own peace of mind) but for any other college educators who were interested in optimizing their teaching.

Introducing the importance of memory theory

Miller’s first journal article, “What College Teachers Should Know About Memory: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology,” offered an up-to-date summary of the research on short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory. It also offered some surprising predictions of future trends in teaching-related cognitive theory, including a shift in emphasis from students’ perceptual learning styles to the role of attention and frequent testing in deep learning.

The article sparked plenty of interest. “It got some fan attention from James Lang, an incredible teaching expert,” she says. “One thing led to another, and I got the opportunity to write a book.”

Like her first journal article, Miller’s book held some leading-edge ideas. Called Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, the book brought teaching techniques—backed by neuroscience and cognitive psychology—into the digital age. “[The book] became the opportunity to synthesize a lot of general teaching principles that came out of cognitive psychology but also connect them to different emerging teaching tools,” says Miller.

Introducing educators to cognitive theory

Today, Miller—a professor of psychological sciences at Northern Arizona University—delivers her message about the power of memory in keynote speeches, in-person workshops, and online faculty professional-development courses across the United States and internationally.

When working with faculty, Miller focuses on providing a framework to put proven theories of cognitive psychology to practical use in the classroom. Essentially, this application of the theoretical is similar to what educators often ask their students to do with a particular lecture or textbook chapter, so the idea is a familiar one.

The trick, she notes, is to help educators think about their focus, which is too often on content and its delivery. “The key is to shift our perspective so we’re thinking about what happens in the mind of the learner in the learning process,” Miller says.

A framework for the right questions

According to Miller, there are three concepts from cognitive psychology that make up the framework of learning and retention:

  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Thinking skills

As a result, she begins by asking faculty to think about how to capture and maintain students’ attention during any type of learning. Next, she provides techniques derived from applied memory research that instructors can implement to facilitate deeper learning. Last, she asks educators to consider how they can help students learn to think like an expert in their field.

Miller offers this example: Because of her expertise in edtech, she is often asked very specific technological questions, such as, “Should I be using clickers?” or “Should I be trying VoiceThread?” But Miller insists that the key to selecting useful edtech solutions is to back up a few steps. “[You need to take] a very purpose-driven approach to selecting and using technologies—or even non-technological teaching innovation,” she says. “You have to start with a goal, a learning objective.”

So Miller answers educators’ questions with another question: “I ask them, ‘What’s the hardest thing in your class? Where are your students struggling?’ And then we’ll think about that within the cognitive framework. How are you getting their attention? How are you reinforcing memory? How are you reinforcing thinking skills? Then we can come up with an activity or pick a technology that will help solve the issue.”

Putting the theory into practice

Miller notes that she carries these three concepts—attention, memory, and thinking skills—into her own teaching, both in her NAU classes and in her faculty workshops and courses. In the case of her educator-students, Miller is careful to model what she suggests by focusing on being engaging, helping them commit concepts to memory, and helping them learn to think like a cognitive psychologist.

Together, says Miller, she and these other educators work to come up with innovative solutions for better learning, which can benefit teachers and students everywhere. “A lot of light bulb moments come about at this point when I discuss these ideas with faculty,” Miller says. She shares some of them in her lesson for undergrads, below.


Course: PSY 260 Cognitive Psychology

“We have a rare opportunity as teachers: to not just be a dispensary of content but know, whether in a big class or small class, that we can hold their hand, we can support them, and we can encourage them with opportunities that will actually make them successful.”

— Michelle D. Miller, PhD

Frequency: 75-minute class meetings, 2 days per week

Class size: 50–80 students

Course description: Research, methods, and theory in human information processing. Topics may include attention, memory, problem solving, and language.


See resources shared by Michelle Miller, PhD

See materials

Lesson: Three evidence-based methods of retrieval practice

“One of the key insights from cognitive psychology,” says Miller, “is in what we call ‘retrieval practice’—ways to test and strengthen things in memory. Ways to promote learning itself. Retrieval practice works because we’re actively pulling information out of memory.” As a result, she begins by offering this seemingly simple piece of advice: “Test students to the nth degree. Quiz all the time.”

That can sound daunting to both educators and students, until you hear Miller’s rationale and methods. “You have to take a deep breath and stop thinking that [testing] has to be a certain way,” she says. “Tests can look like a lot of things. It’s not just an ordeal you put students through and read answers back to them, but it really is an opportunity to start a dialog and to increase learning value.”

Here are some of her science-backed secrets for doing just that:

Begin class with a brain dump

Miller says that building a retrieval practice is a good place to start. She encourages students to keep a “reflective journal”—a place where they can quickly write down everything they know about a given lesson, lecture, or topic. This, she says, is one of the best ways to emphasize memory and learning. “Students often are like, ‘Here’s what I’ve learned, but I don’t know what I am missing,’” she says.

Using a “brain dump” (Miller was inspired by the Retrieval Practice research hub) allows students to show what they remember or “know” and realize what pieces are still hazy or missing. This sparks an invitation for students to ask questions instead of just sitting and staring at the whiteboard, she adds. She suggests that students do a brain dump after class, as a way to clean up (and flesh out) their notes, or as a method of studying prior to a test.

Miller’s Invitation to Join the Conversation

Miller encourages educators to engage in ongoing dialogs on their best practices in teaching. This is where some of the most effective learning approaches begin—including, she says, her own approach to offering a second test for extra credit, which was sparked by a conversation with a colleague who was already using something similar in chemistry classes.

“There’s so much vibrant learning now,” Miller says. “This is really a movement that has picked up speed. Educational technology has something to do with it, but even if your education is really, really low-tech, you can benefit from so much of the conversation that has come as a result.”

Have students create their own quizzes

Miller often has her students come up with quiz questions for the class. Each student writes questions on a notecard, and Miller selects the best questions to formulate a quiz.

That quiz gets handed out the next class period, with a further twist: No answer key is given, nor do students turn their papers in to the instructor. Rather, students themselves score their work, discussing ideas with classmates and referencing the assigned reading to come up with the correct answers to each question. Only at the end of this process does Miller jump in to verify the right answers and address any lingering misconceptions.

Change the idea of “going over the test”

The day after an exam, Miller does not follow the traditional approach. “When you say, ‘OK, we’re going to go over the test,’ everybody’s eyes glaze over, they sit there and stew about how you didn’t grade it right and that nobody has ever learned anything,” she says.

Instead, Miller has students get together and retake the test in small groups. “Each group gets a blank exam, and they spend the entire class period going through it together,” she says. “They can use any resource they want, but they can’t ask me.

“Here’s what this does: From a cognitive perspective, we know from research that when we revisit something, we have an increased receptive window for learning,” Miller says. Plus, the group discussion required in this approach is, in itself, another method to encourage retention. “I eavesdrop and hear them weighing different options on why answers are right or wrong. They’re having fun, they’re supporting each other. They love it.”

Why are students motivated for the test the second time around? If the group scores a 90% or higher, Miller gives the individuals in the group extra credit.

Students’ response to extra testing

Miller admits that students experience an initial bit of dread when they first realize that they will be taking more quizzes and tests in her course. Over time, though, that changes. Thanks to the group testing, Miller typically sees decreased test anxiety and a dramatic decrease in student objections to the test questions themselves.

But the best result of all is when students are excited to share their newfound knowledge. “In one of my Intro to Psych courses, a student would call her mom every day after class to tell her what she learned,” Miller says. (Not only was this heartwarming to Miller, it also served as yet another example of retrieval practice in action.) “This is what I want,” says Miller. “That [students] have some insight and are excited to share it.”

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