Understanding How Cognitive Psychology Can Inform and Improve Spanish Vocabulary Acquisition in High School Classrooms

Article excerpt

Educators deal with the many dynamic functions and applications of the human brain on a dally basis. The theoretical research of the biology and functionality of the human brain is on the rise, and educational publishers continue to support books and scholarly articles that promote the notion that "brain research" can and should be applied to classroom teaching. Key terms such as brain-differentiated learning, brain-compatible learning, brain-friendly learning, and brain-based teaching have been used to lure educators to adopt these theoretically supported teaching strategies. Much of the literature on brain research deals with explaining the memory systems of the brain, or more specifically how the brain works to retain and retrieve bits of information. The idea that applying this knowledge base to educational psychology to yield positive outcomes in the teaching and learning process sounds promising, however, there is a lack of empirical research conducted in K- 12 classrooms to support the positive results of applying brain research to teaching practices. So, the question arises- Have educators and proponents of brain research assumed all too quickly that brain-informed teaching strategies will yield consistent positive results? Our study offers empirical evidence which helps answer this question. This empirical study has investigated how information about human memory from the field of cognitive psychology can be applied specifically to teaching Spanish vocabulary in high school classrooms. Our interdisciplinary study brought together the fields of cognitive and educational psychology along with foreign language teaching in order to understand better how research on human memory can improve teaching vocabulary in high school Spanish classes.

Literature Review

Given the interdisciplinary nature of this study, we reviewed literature from several different fields to gain a comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand. Educational psychology, cognitive psychology, and foreign language teaching all intersect when considering the implications of the knowledge of human memory and its impact upon teaching vocabulary in high school Spanish classrooms.

In the field of educational psychology, brain-based, brain-friendly, or brain-compatible teaching have become popular terms that are prominently noted in the literature and commonly included in programs of well attended teacher conferences. Understanding how the brain works and applying this information to teaching practices has become a popular phenomenon in education. Best-selling books and curriculum have saturated the book market to attract educators to purchase resources which will teach them how to apply information about the physiological and biological functions of the brain to enhance the teaching and learning process (Jossey-Bass, 2008; Tate, 2003; Sousa, 2003; Sousa, 2006; Jensen, 2000; Caine, et al., 2005). For example, Sprenger (2005) explained brain terms and extracted examples from her own teaching when she found successful learning outcomes after applying insights from the field of cognitive psychology. Though this type of anecdotal evidence of brain-based teaching methods is common throughout educational psychology texts, empirical studies which highlight particular teaching methods tested in K-12 classrooms are lacking. In fact, Smilkstein (2003,p. 124) asserted, "although educators have an understanding of how the brain learns, that alone is not enough to generate a methodology for developing and delivering curricula that trigger and sustain the brain's innate learning process as well as the learner's motivation and attention". The Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences Education (1999) also cautioned, "In considering which findings from brain research are relevant to human learning or, by extension, to education, one must be careful to avoid adopting faddish concepts that have not been demonstrated to be of value in classroom practice" (p. …