Learning how we learn

Teachers are looking more and more to research in cognitive psychology to inform their practice. Cognitive psychology is usually defined as the study of the mind, including perception, attention and memory. This field of research can help us to understand learning by testing hypotheses about learning strategies that are developed based on what we already know about the mind (Weinstein & Sumeracki, 2019). There are four important learning strategies that have recently moved from theory into practice and which have implications for all teachers. These learning strategies are outlined below with suggestions on how they relate to learning to ring.

Cognitive Load Theory

There are two important components of memory – long-term memory and working memory. Working memory is where thinking takes place, where information that is actively being processed before it moves to long-term memory for hopefully long-term storage. Working memory is finite. On average, your working memory can hold about seven ‘bits’ of information and only holds them for approximately 20 seconds. This limit of working memory means that it can quickly become over-loaded when dealing with new tasks. This is known as cognitive load theory. Structuring complex tasks by limiting the amount of new information can reduce this cognitive load.

One way to reduce cognitive load when teaching ringing is to break down a task so that the student can tackle it step-by-step. The ART Training Scheme already breaks down activities into several small steps. For example, teaching bell handling is broken down into many stages and exercises. More stages than in the way many of us were perhaps taught; by learning the backstroke, the handstroke and then both strokes together.

This theory of breaking tasks down will work for all stages of ringing, such as Call Changes, Plain Hunt and even the most complex of methods. Learning a place bell, calls, circle of work, etc. are all steps that can be learnt in stages rather than everything at once.

It is important to help students to shift learning from working to long-term memory. The next three theories suggest strategies for doing just this.

Spaced Review

Learning everything to do with a topic during a single time period is not as effective as distributed learning (Dunlosky et al., 2013). Spaced review involves revisiting a topic after a ‘forgetting gap’ and strengthens long-term memory. A simple way to manage this is to build in review time to each teaching session, including reviewing learning from the previous week, month and/or further ago.

As we all know, intensive sessions work. Less of a gap between handling sessions in particular will help ensure that working memory moves to long-term memory. It is ok to revisit some of the smaller, earlier stages again and build them back together. For example, if a new ringer has managed to ring alone during the previous lesson, a good starting point would be to revisit single strokes at the beginning of the lesson before putting them together again. This will also build confidence. It is also good to review the learner’s logbook to remind them what they have learnt already.

For method ringing, good examples would be to practise a plain course before ringing a touch or waiting until the latest point before adding a call. Practising half a course or ringing a different bell to practise different place bells is also a good idea.

Retrieval Practice

Repeatedly re-reading a text is not an effective way of learning. It is much more effective to try to retrieve what you already know from memory (Roedinger & Karpicke, 2006). Retrieval practice involves retrieving something you have learnt in the past and bringing it back to mind. Students are using retrieval practice every time they undertake a test. Using frequent, short and importantly, low-stakes tests causes students to retrieve knowledge on a regular basis. Any activities that require students to draw on past knowledge can have the same effect.

Theory is so important! Ringers will learn methods quicker and move onto more complex methods if they understand them. Writing methods out, the circle of work, treble passing are all good ways to make theory stick, far better than retaining memory from being talked at or reading text. Quick fire questions are also a great way to check understanding and to check reaction times that will need to be much quicker when they are actually ringing. “You’re ringing Plain Bob Doubles, you’re about to do a 3-4 up dodge, you hear the conductor call “bob!”, what do you do?” “Make the bob/make 4ths & in?” “Correct! What do you do next?” If they can recall the correct answers quickly, then they stand a far better chance of being able to remember when ringing it.

Elaborative Interrogation

Elaboration involves describing and explaining in detail something that you have learnt. This approach supports learning by integrating new information with existing prior knowledge, helping to embed it in long-term memory. A well-studied form of elaboration is elaborative interrogation, which involves prompting students to generate an explanation by being asked ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ Studies have shown that learning effects are stronger when students generate answers to these questions themselves rather than being provided with the explanations.

In summary, regular reviews of learning, using low-stakes tests and asking students to explain what they have learnt can be very beneficial, helping to move learning from working memory to long-term memory. If they can hold on to that new knowledge and/or skill in their long-term memory then they have really learnt something. This is how we all learn new skills and methods and does not just apply to new ringers.

This theory can be used to check the learner’s understanding of how what they do on the end of a rope affects what the bell does and how a single stroke affects the next one. For example, it is sometimes counter-intuitive that to slow a bell down and ring a slow stroke, that you have to put more effort as opposed to riding a bike where less effort will make you go slower.

You can also check a ringer’s understanding of methods by getting them to recite what to do and randomly shout, “bob!” You can ask them to explain why they have to do what they do at a call. Recite a different place bell, etc. etc.


Dunlosky, J. et al. (2013). Improving pupils’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (1) pp4-58.

Roedinger H. L. & Karpicke, J.D. (2006). Test enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science 17, pp249-255.

Weinstein, Y. & Sumeracki, M. (2019). Understanding how we learn. Routledge, Oxon.

Jenny Wynn and Moira Johnson