Developing Cognitive Activation

Learning in school requires students to constantly link new information to information they have already learned. When students are able to use incoming information to activate information already in their minds, the new information is more integrally linked to old information.

For example, as some students listen to a teacher talk about animal habitats, or as they read a text about jungle animals, they may relate the new content to what they already know about animals or habitats. However, other students might find it hard to do this. Some have minds that are too active; they seem to wander “all over the place,” as they think of something that reminds them of something else that reminds them of something else. Others might feel bored because they can’t relate what they are hearing or reading to what they already know.

Students who are effective at making rich and relevant cognitive connections are able to associate prior knowledge with features of new information.

Here are some strategies for promoting more effective cognitive connections.

Helpful Hints

  • Students with superficial processing may benefit from direct instruction in elaboration techniques. Give students opportunities to elaborate or expand upon significant points or attributes of key ideas of a lesson.  
  • Teach students who process too deeply how to differentiate main ideas from details. Provide students with reminder cards that cue, or remind them, to attend to specific information. Scanning or skimming techniques may be taught to help students learn to efficiently pull out salient information.  
  • Provide time for students to elaborate on new information, by linking it to prior knowledge. For example, use concept maps that allow students to illustrate similarities and differences between the features of new information and what they already know about it. Creating concept maps may help students process and relate ideas in reading, math, science, etc.  
  • Impose time limits to ensure that students adequately process information, for example have them think about or take notes on a reading assignment for at least 15 minutes but no more than 25 minutes.  
  • Have students list the times during the day when they are most alert and attentive. Schedule introduction of new material, review and study activities during these periods.  
  • Incorporate students’ areas of interest and affinities into classroom activities. They can become “experts” in a field and share that knowledge with the class. Challenge them to find ways to actively involve other students in an affinity related activity.  
  • Teach students to engage in active processing strategies. For example:
    • Review notes from a lecture as soon as possible after class
    • Connect what was heard today with what is already in notes
    • Question themselves if there’s anything they don’t understand so they can get immediate clarification
    • Draw up a summary statement from the lecture
    • Read the summary statement as a pre-listening tool at the beginning of the next class session  
  • Schedule brief breaks during which students may day-dream, free-associate, or freely activate their mind. For example, students may enjoy drawing illustrations of an historical event, role playing a scene from a story, or spending time writing in a journal.  
  • Have students invoke self-testing techniques, for example, stopping and asking themselves questions about information they have just read, coming up with questions they think might be on a quiz or test, etc.  
  • Promote bottom-up thinking (starting with the details and working up to the big picture) as well as top-down thinking (starting with the big picture and working down to the details).  
  • Promote collaboration, pairing students who work well with the details with students who prefer to think about the big picture. Encourage students to talk to each other about the ways in which each thinks through tasks, etc.