How do cognition and memory affect learning?


Cognitive development is the study of how children think and learn at different stages in life. The constructivist theories of Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner view humans as active creators of knowledge based on their experiences and interactions with their environment.[i] Theory-­theory and probabilistic models of learning build on these ideas by imagining children as scientists who form theories about how the world works, gather information to test their hypotheses, and revise their knowledge accordingly.[ii]

Research shows that children are not blank slates, but are predisposed to learn and organize information in certain ways.[iii] They are innately primed to learn language and understand numbers. Over time, they also naturally begin to understand cause­-and­-effect relationships, and how objects behave in the physical world.

Developing the cognitive capacity for memory and attention is also essential to the learning process, which involves learners paying attention to new information, processing and understanding it, and storing it in memory. The human brain absorbs and processes information in stages.[iv] First, environmental input from the five senses is received and very briefly stored in sensory memory. Some of the information then moves on to working memory, where the material is consciously analyzed and manipulated. New information deemed valuable is combined with existing knowledge and encoded in long-term memory, which acts as the “file cabinet” that can store potentially limitless amounts of information.

Understanding the research behind the development of cognition, including attention and memory abilities, can support educators to develop strategies for helping students learn and remember information.

The sections below highlight key findings from the research on cognitionmemory, and creativity.

Key Findings

Cognition & Learning

Strong executive functions help learners manage their thoughts and behavior, and are important to the learning process.

Executive functions are the cognitive processes a person uses to understand, manage, and direct their thoughts and behaviors.[v] Two of these functions — attentional control and working memory — determine where mental energy is focused, while another, called inhibitory control, allows an individual to inhibit irrelevant or inappropriate thoughts or behaviors. As a person solves problems and plans, a function called cognitive flexibility allows them to shift their perspective, task, or goals as their situation changes.

Executive functions are essential to learning. They enable students to pay attention to lessons, organize their learning, and engage effectively in classroom activities and discussions. Studies show that weak executive functions are linked to poor academic performance and other challenges later in life.[vi] Targeted programs, such as computerized trainings that expand working memory, have been shown to strengthen children’s executive functions, although there is debate about the longevity of the effects and whether they benefit real-world learning.[vii]

Emotion and cognition are connected and the ability to regulate one’s emotions plays a role in academic success.

cognition3Feelings are often considered to be distinct from thoughts. Until recently, neuroscientists believed that these two phenomena – emotion and cognition – engaged separate regions of the brain. However, new research has revealed that emotion and cognition are actually highly interconnected, occurring in many overlapping areas across the brain and interacting to determine behavior and thought.[viii] The ability to control and manage one’s emotions is important to functioning both in school and in the broader world,[ix] and research shows that emotional regulation is associated with academic success.[x] Teaching students strategies for regulating their emotions – such as attentional deployment, focusing a student’s attention toward or away from a feeling or situation, or cognitive change, helping a student reinterpret how they understand a situation’s emotional meaning– may help students better regulate their emotions, both immediately and in the long run.[xi]

Memory & Learning

Information can be organized in ways that make it easier to remember.

Working memory can only hold a small amount of material for a limited time, but can hold more for longer if the information is well organized.[xii] Researchers have identified a number of techniques that can increase the amount of information held in working memory, increasing the likelihood that new information will be stored in long-­term memory.[xiii] Chunking, for instance, involves combining individual units of information into larger blocks, such as remembering a phone number as a combination of two­ and three­ digit numbers rather than ten individual digits.[xiv] Other mnemonic techniques that facilitate learning and subsequent information retrieval include the chain method, remembering a list by creating an association between each elements on the list, and the method of loci, attaching mental images of information to be remembered to certain locations in a familiar space then visualizing oneself walking through the locations, encountering the information.[xv]

Techniques like spacing and retrieval practice help students retain information.[x]

memoryattentionfinalSpacing out the repetition or review of information over time helps encode information into long­ term memory more effectively.[xvii] Connecting new information to what one already knows — a process known as elaborative rehearsal — also makes it easier to remember.[xviii] Asking learners to recall information repeatedly over time, through low-stakes quizzes or other retrieval activities, makes them more likely to retain the knowledge,[xix] and can be more effective than just passive rereading.

Creativity & the Brain

The ability to think expansively and develop many potential solutions to a problem plays a role in creativity.

Divergent thinking is the process of generating many original ideas or potential solutions to a problem.[xx] As a form of spontaneous, expansive thought, divergent thinking plays a role in creativity and is often used as a measure of creative potential.[xxi] One of the most common examples of its use in the classroom is brainstorming, the opportunity for students to work together to generate as many ideas as possible without judgment or concern for feasibility. While divergent thinking often appears free-flowing and unstructured, some research suggests that executive functions and metacognition (thinking about one’s own thought processes) are important for guiding effective divergent thinking.[xxii] In one study, students who participated in a lesson on how divergent thinking works and how the mind generates and associates different ideas were able to produce a greater number and broader range of ideas than a comparison group,[xxiii] which suggests that it is possible to teach this aspect of creative thinking.

Encouraging students to draw on implicit knowledge can help foster more creative problem solving.

Our unconscious knowledge and thoughts, known as implicit cognition, can play an important role in creative problem solving and decision-making. There are two main ways people process information and make decisions: systematic processing, which entails methodical reasoning and attentive thought, and heuristic or implicit processing, which involves quick, intuitive judgments based on knowledge we already have processed and stored.[xxiv] Research suggests that someone’s unconscious thought about a problem, while his or her conscious thought is directed elsewhere, may lead to more creative solutions.[xxv] It may be possible to teach students strategies that encourage the use of implicit cognition to solve problems. In one study, when students were taught heuristic problem-solving strategies, including how to simplify problems and make educated guesses, they were able to suggest more original and useful solutions to problems.[xxvi] These heuristic methods work best for open-ended and problem-based learning tasks, rather than rigidly structured exercises where students must follow specific steps to reach a solution.[xxvii]


Theory of Mind
The Theory of Mind subtopic includes research on the development and measurement of Theory of Mind – the ability to understand one’s own and other people’s beliefs, emotions, desires, and perceptions, and how those mental states influence behavior – with a focus on young children.

Emotion & Cognition
The Emotion & Cognition subtopic includes information about how the brain recognizes, processes, and regulates emotions.

Language Production & Comprehension
The Language Production & Comprehension subtopic explores the technical aspects of how people speak and understand spoken words.

Cognitive Control
The Cognitive Control subtopic explores the brain’s ability to select certain thoughts, responses, or goals over others at different times, and to switch between different tasks.

Face and Object Recognition
The Face and Object Recognition subtopic explores how the brain functions to recognize and process both objects and other people’s faces, including how children develop these abilities.

Development of Reasoning Skills
The Development of Reasoning Skills subtopic explores how people develop and use their ability to reason. Studies discuss the use of logic, categorization, and how people determine cause and effect relationships.

Language Development & Cognition
The Language Development & Cognition subtopic explores research on the regions of the brain involved in the development of language skills, including research on infants acquiring sounds and words in their native language.

Spatial Skills & Navigation
The Spatial Skills & Navigation subtopic explores how the brain stores information about locations, shapes, and objects and how spatial thinking affects student performance related to math, science and engineering. Studies also explore human navigation and wayfinding abilities.

Working Memory
The Working Memory subtopic describes the function of the brain’s working memory, or its ability to temporarily hold and manipulate a small amount of information in service of various thinking processes. Studies in this subtopic focus on the connection between working memory and math learning, literacy, and attention.

Prospective Memory
Prospective Memory is the process by which people remember to do something at a specific time in the future. This subtopic includes research on the different ways the brain creates prospective memories and factors that influence prospective memory success or failure.

Retrieval Practice
The Retrieval Practice subtopic includes research on how people retrieve information from memory, and how this process can benefit learning. Studies also explore how retrieval practice is related to short and long-term retention of material, and how it can be used in the classroom.

Recognition Memory & False Memory 
The Recognition Memory & False Memory subtopic includes studies on recognition memory, how people remember something they previously encountered. Studies also explore how people develop and use memories of past personal experiences, and factors that lead to distortions in memory.

Creativity & Cognition
The Creativity & Cognition subtopic includes research on the development, measurement, and assessment of creativity in learners, including studies on originality, insight, and problem solving.

The Stuttering subtopic includes research on the characteristics, causes, and treatments of stuttering in children and adults.

Explore this topic in the Network View or Chord View of the Research Map.


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[ii] Gopnik A, & Wellman H. (2012). Reconstructing constructivism: Causal models, Bayesian learning mechanisms and the theory theory. Psychological Bulletin, 138(6): 1085–1108.
[iii] Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000) How People Learn Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Chapter 4 – “How Children Learn
[iv] Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 8, 47­89.
[v] Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011) “Building the Brain’s ‘Air Traffic Control’ System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function,” Cambridge, MA: Harvard.
[vi] Adele Diamond (2013) “Executive Functions,” Annual Review of Psychology, 64: 135­168.
[vii] Adele Diamond, Kathleen Lee (2011) “Interventions Shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4 to 12 Years Old.” Science.
Adele Diamond (2012). “Activities and Programs That Improve Children’s Executive Functions.” Current Directions in Psychological Science.
[viii] Lindquist, K. A., Wager, T. D., Kober, H., Bliss-Moreau, E., & Barrett, L. F. (2012). The brain basis of emotion: A meta-analytic review. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 35(03): 121-143.
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[ix] Ahmed, S. P., Bittencourt-Hewitt, A., & Sebastian, C. L. (2015). Neurocognitive bases of emotion regulation development in adolescence. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 15: 11-25.
[x] Graziano, P. A., Reavis, R. D., Keane, S. P., & Calkins, S. D. (2007). The role of emotion regulation in children’s early academic success. Journal of school psychology, 45(1): 3-19.
Gumora, G., & Arsenio, W. F. (2002). Emotionality, emotion regulation, and school performance in middle school children. Journal of school psychology, 40(5): 395-413.
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Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The Psychological Review, 63, 81­97.
[xiii] Eggen, P., & Kauchak, D. (2016). Educational psychology: Windows on Classrooms (10th ed.). New York: Pearson.
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[xvi] Brown, Roediger, McDaniel. (2014) Make It Stick.
[xvii] Carpenter, S. K., Cepeda, N. J., Rohrer, D., Kang, S. H., & Pashler, H. (2012). Using spacing to enhance diverse forms of learning: Review of recent research and implications for instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 369­378.
[xviii] Eggen, P., & Kauchak, D. (2016). Educational psychology: Windows on Classrooms (10th ed.). New York: Pearson.
[xix] Agarwal, P.K. (2016). Retrieval Practice Guide. Retrieved from:
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[xxv] Sio, U. N., & Ormerod, T. C. (2009). Does incubation enhance problem solving? A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1): 94-120.
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[xxvi] Barak, M. (2013). Impacts of learning inventive problem-solving principles: Students’ transition from systematic searching to heuristic problem solvingInstructional Science, 41(4): 657-679.
[xxvii] Barak, M. (2013). Sio, U. N., & Ormerod, T. C. (2009).