Cognitive Sandwiching: A Method for Teaching Difficult Topics

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati

Memory is the residue of thought

 – Daniel Willingham

This is one of my favorite pedagogical quotes and I’ve found it to be 100% accurate over the years. 

As an International Baccalaureate Diploma chemistry teacher at an international school, I often have to teach topics to my students that are really, really difficult. Furthermore, the students will be examined on these topics at some point in the future, and those grades really mean something: the students will be using them to apply to study at universities all around the world. 

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“An AMAZING Book!”

A key question I often ask myself is how can I get my students to think deeply about the topics they are learning, so that they remember enough details to get excellent grades on their exams?

it integrated

I’ve tried lots of different methods over the years, but I think I’ve finally nailed-down a system that works with every difficult topic I teach:

  • Explore
  • Question
  • Teach
  • Test

Hopefully you’ll see that this is a system that can be applied to your subject area/teaching context too. 

Step 1: Explore (Thinking Intensity 2)

Provide the stuff you want the students to learn in multiple formats. Some that you may wish to use could be:

  • Online videos
  • Websites
  • Simulations
  • Textbooks
  • Podcasts
  • Magazine entries
  • Revision guides

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Get the students to work in groups or pairs to produce some kind of creative, collaborative output. Examples include:

  • Create a Google Slides presentation about…..
  • Create a stop-motion animation about……
  • Create a large infographic about…….
  • Create a digital animation about…..

At the end of this exploration step, the students should present their work to the class in some form. This simple act of articulating what they have learned will cause deep-thinking (and therefore, memory) to take place. 

Step 2: Question (Thinking Intensity 3)

Give the students a series of exam-style, challenging questions on the topic to complete under timed conditions. The students can work together on this if you wish, and may use the resources they have for help. 

When the time-limit is over, provide the model answers (and make sure you actually have model answers available). Students can go through these answers via peer-assessment, self-assessment or even automated assessment (in the case of online teaching systems, like MyMaths and Educake).

Discussing homework

As a teacher, I also like to go through any particularly difficult questions with the students so as to clear up any misconceptions. This is especially true if, for example, nobody in the class can do question 2. 

Step 3: Teach (Thinking Intensity 1)

This acts as an incredibly useful review for students after what has been an intense exploration and self-assessment of stuff that was, essentially, self-taught (with a bit of help from the teacher).

Go through the key points of the topic traditionally, perhaps using a slide-based presentation, video, animation or even notes written and explained on the whiteboard.

Make use of a few learning games to spice things up a bit, especially if key vocabulary needs to be learned. Spend time going through common misconceptions: those things that students get wrong year-after-year. 

Step 4: Test (Thinking Intensity 4)

Test the content covered using the most difficult questions you can find. Don’t go beyond the syllabus or above what’s been taught (obviously), but use past-paper questions that really do get the students to apply what they’ve learned to unusual contexts. 

Prior to the test, you might want to provide questions of similar difficulty (with model answers provided) for the students to go through at home. 

chatting in class

Make sure you go through the test afterwards too. Provide the mark scheme and make it really clear where, and how, marks have been lost.

Fluctuations

By fluctuating the intensity of thinking in this way (2,3,1,4) we’re exercising the brain in a similar way to how we exercise the body – gradual increases in intensity, followed by rest, followed by higher intensity. 

I’ve found that this model works really well for getting students to understand really difficult topics. 

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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