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Using Cognitive Science to Inform First Year Seminar Pedagogy

This project is designed to improve Coe’s First Year Seminar (FYS) program by creating a team-taught interdisciplinary section of FYS based in cognitive science-informed pedagogy. As common parts of the general education curriculum at many ACM institutions, FYS provides an ideal platform for pedagogical practices informed by the principles of cognitive science because such courses are typically utilized to socialize new students into the college and help them develop the “habits of mind” they need to succeed academically. In line with existing cognitive science-informed teaching approaches, our course will be based on modules designed to invite students to engage in acts of exploration, concept invention, and application. [www.pogil.org] These modules will be compiled and made available for faculty to adapt and implement in various interdisciplinary and discipline-specific contexts.

Conference presentation

The organizers are presenting results from this project at a national conference.

Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching and Learning: Designing Effective Teaching

August 7-9, 2017 in Asheville, MN

Cognitive Science and First-Year Seminar: Contradictory Approaches to Creating Learners?

Presenters: Theresa Donofrio, Katie Rodgers, and Steve Singleton – Coe College

This session interrogates the (in)compatibilities among distinct approaches to “creating communities of learners” through an assessment of an interdisciplinary, team-taught First-Year Seminar. The faculty members designed the seminar utilizing cognitive science-informed pedagogies and created curricular activities intended to empower students to work collaboratively, solve interdisciplinary problems, and transfer learning across contexts.

Though successful in meeting some learning outcomes, this experiment in course design reveals the contradictory demands on student learning created by melding divergent pedagogical approaches. This comparative evaluation of pedagogies employed to cultivate skilled first-year learners raises broad questions about pedagogical priorities.

Session Outcomes: (1) Compare and contrast the competing learning outcomes underlying distinct approaches to “creating communities of learners.” (2) Assess external and/or structural challenges to implementing cognitivescience informed pedagogy. (3) Identify ways to promote cognitive science-informed pedagogies as part of campus conversations about teaching and learning.

Note: Content below is adapted from the project proposal. 

Our project is to team-teach a section of FYS, which developed in conversations with colleagues at Coe and other ACM colleges, typifies the collaborative ethos of a liberal arts institution. The collaborative nature of this project is most readily apparent in the interdisciplinary design of the course. Our project team is composed of three faculty members from different disciplines with different methodological backgrounds. We will be working collectively throughout the conception, implementation, and evaluation of this cognitive science-based course. In so doing, we seek to model the benefits of interdisciplinary work in the process of adopting a new pedagogy.

Our plans for project development and the dissemination of findings presume collaboration with colleagues at Coe and other ACM schools. At Coe, we envision working closely with the Director of the First Year Experience and other FYS instructors as we develop and implement the course. Upon conclusion of the semester, we plan to share our results through faculty forums predicated upon fostering interdisciplinary discussions of teaching and learning. Beyond Coe’s campus, our work to develop the course and share our experiences will be done in conjunction with colleagues at other ACM institutions.


Our project advances the goals and priorities of our campus by fostering intellectual growth for students and faculty. For students, we recognize the changing needs, expectations, and attitudes of novice learners. Several decades of research suggests innovation is necessary to sustain a modern vision of a liberal arts education. By undertaking this work, we can be proactive in meeting these students’ needs. Furthermore, in accordance with the Coe mission statement, this project will allow “students to discover what their real talents and interests are, and develop in them the skills, abilities, and habits of mind that will make possible a successful career in any field of endeavor, including ones that do not yet exist.”

Our project also contributes to institutional priorities related to faculty development. In recent years, focused effort has been invested in creating more opportunities for Coe faculty to discuss teaching and learning (e.g., the creation of a faculty development committee, ongoing liberal arts discussion groups, and occasional teaching circles). Our efforts in this project build on these opportunities by

  • Engaging faculty in conversations about cognitive science principles for course development and implementation;
  • Modeling the practical application of this pedagogy;
  • Lowering barriers to adoption by providing materials for potential adopters.

If these outcomes are realized, the work described herein will be sustained beyond the term of this project.

This project responds to a number of faculty concerns potentially inhibiting the adoption of cognitive science-informed pedagogies. Cognitive science research exploring how students learn, apply, and retain new content stands to improve the ways instructors design curriculum. With these principles, instructors can promote students’ information processing skills and improve oral and written communication, critical thinking, problem solving, metacognition and self-reflection. Nevertheless, our project recognizes the roadblocks that may deter some faculty from embracing these pedagogies.

These obstacles include unfamiliarity with the research, a lack of time to develop needed curricular resources, and an absence of relatable models. Furthermore, students’ previous educational experiences, coupled with popular cultural representations of the classroom, create beliefs in students’ minds as to what “teaching” and “learning” look like. These beliefs largely consist of a professor lecturing at the head of the class while students take notes, write papers, and complete examinations. Attempts to deviate from this script in the ways called for by some cognitive science-informed pedagogies might provoke discomfort and anxiety.

Fortuitously, FYS offers a unique space for addressing these concerns because it is designed to recalibrate students’ expectations for college learning. Accordingly, integrating cognitive science principles into the FYS curriculum provides instructors the chance to revise students’ expectations and train them to develop the “habits of mind” leading to deeper and longer-lasting learning. Moreover, by creating a model and developing transferrable curricular resources, our project seeks to minimize the obstacles potentially preventing faculty from benefiting from extant cognitive science research.


We plan to team-teach a section of FYS designed to

  • Showcase the power of interdisciplinary thinking by combining perspectives informed by Sociology, Rhetoric, and Chemistry
  • Spotlight the value of a cognitive science-informed pedagogy.

Toward fulfilling this objective, our work will be focused on furthering our understanding of cognitive science-informed pedagogy and developing course modules reflecting these practices. To enhance our knowledge of cognitive science principles, we plan to participate in the cognitive science listserv/reading group (initiated at the September FaCE conference), assemble a professional development library for Coe faculty, and visit teaching and learning centers at ACM schools.

Our studies will inform the creation of course modules based in cognitive science principles. In line with existing cognitive science-informed teaching approaches, the modules will follow a three-part structure that fosters student exploration (students search for patterns and contrasts in the information or data), concept invention (students develop concepts and connections around the patterns or comparisons recognized in the exploration phase), and application (the concepts are applied in new situations intended to generalize their meaning and applicability). [www.pogil.org] Supporting information will accompany each module to assist instructors with implementation and student assessment

Stage I: Preliminary Course Planning Late January/Early February 2016

  • Team will meet to determine the topic and learning outcomes for FYS section. By March 15, 2016, the team will complete and submit course description to the Director of the First Year Experience.

Stage II: Researching Cognitive Science-Informed Pedagogies Mid-March through Early May 2016

  • Team will participate and help lead the “cognitive science reading group” created after the fall conference. Instructors will meet on a monthly basis to brainstorm activities. Team will travel to teaching and learning centers at other ACM college to study their approaches to FYS courses. Early Summer Individual research and collective participation in reading group continues.

Stage III: Course Development & Implementation Early Summer 2016

  • Team will develop a list of the questions or problems animating the class, develop detailed learning outcomes, and preliminary assignments. Mid Summer, the team creates preliminary course modules, complete with readings and activities. Late Summer Instructors will finalize syllabus, create Moodle page, and complete initial modules. Orientation begins August 20, 2016 and classes begin August 24, 2016. Ongoing Instructors will meet weekly to revise curricular materials and discuss progress as well as share findings with the cognitive science reading group. The Fall semeter ends December 9, 2016.

Stage IV: Dissemination Winter Break 2016-2017

  • Team will revise modules for publication. In Mid-February, the team will submit findings to an appropriate conference. Research will also be shared throughout the semester with other ACM institutions.

Dissemination Strategies

We plan to disseminate our work via three existing faculty development structures at Coe College. First, we will share our findings with the newly-formed Faculty Development committee. This committee will provide a platform for both the dissemination of our results and collaboration with other interested faculty members, possibly through programming such as teaching circles or Learning Commons presentations. We will also share findings with the First Year Experience (FYE) committee.

We envision an on-going interaction with this group, beginning with the FYE summer orientation workshop. Such interactions will allow us share our successes and challenges with the FYE committee, of which one of us is a member, and occasionally provide brief tutorials in cognitive science-informed approaches at FYS faculty lunches. We see our engagement with both of these committees as an opportunity to encourage other instructors to consider new approaches to teaching by implementing cognitive science-informed practices. Finally, we will present our findings at Coe’s Common Hour to show the campus community the benefits of interdisciplinary approaches and cognitive science-informed pedagogy.

Broader dissemination of our work will assume two forms. First, we will create a repository of course modules that can be shared with faculty at all ACM institutions. These materials will follow a framework designed to provide clear learning and skill outcomes, student materials, assessment tools, and instructor guides. These modules will be adaptable for use in an interdisciplinary FYS course or a variety of related disciplinary courses (chemistry, rhetoric, sociology). Second, we will disseminate our work through conferences such as ISSOTL or Lilly, and possibly at discipline-specific conferences. Will will also share the work with the aforementioned cognitive science reading group and the ACM teaching and learning centers consulted in the development stage of the project.

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