Cognitive Load – What it means in your classroom- Part 2

In Part 1 we looked at the basics of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). CLT makes sense to me broadly, but like all theories dealing with learning it is likely to be imperfect and care should be taken not to overblow it.

In this part we will look at how we might maximise the efficiency of learning. Our long-term memories appear to be limitless, so what prevents us from having limitless knowledge?

Learning happens when our working memory processes sensory information to encode it as schemas into our long-term memory. If that sentence didnt make sense to you then read part 1 again!

The problem with our working memory is that it is limited in how much it can process at once. Overloading the working memory leads to confusion, frustration and poor learning outcomes as we fail to encode anything useful in our long-term memories. Underloading our working memory leads to boredom and distraction. The challenge is to find the sweet spot.

There are considered to be three types of cognitive load. The diagram is taken from The E-Learning Coach

Consider the working memory as a limited capacity jug
  1. Intrinsic Cognitive Load – This is the load imposed by the task itself. This is effectively fixed, but we should try and reduce it by ‘chunking’ breaking the task down into smaller parts
  2. Extraneous Cognitive Load – This is the environment and the way we present the information. We should try and minimise this
  3. Germane Load – This is the processing that takes place comparing the new information to what we already know and encoding new learning to the long-term memory as schema. The more we know about something the lower the Germane CL will be as thoughts and processes are automated.

So efficient learning can occur when

Working Memory Capacity is greater than Intrinsic CL + Extraneous CL + Germane Cl

From Sweller 2010

Take an example of teaching someone to drive for the very first time and consider these.

  1. What do you need to be able to do to control the car, the Intrinsic CLs? How would you manage these?
  2. What are the potential Extraneous CLs? How might you reduce them?
  3. The Germane CL will be very high as it is a novel experience and few processes are automated.  How would you manage this?

Managing Intrinsic Load – Use ‘chunking’ small steps at a time and think of the order to introduce new ideas. Focus on the clutch, brake and accelerator. Move a short distance in a straight line and stop using the brake. Repeat until confident at starting and stopping. Then try gears. Then steering etc …

Reducing Extrinsic Load – Use an empty car park or very quiet road. Don’t talk to the driver etc

Germane Load – Keep the sessions short to prevent fatigue. Repeat often and regularly and increase the complexity (roundabouts, busy junctions etc)  in line with their automation.

Problems can occur in the classroom when a teacher who is an expert in their subject underestimates the germane load on their comparative novice students. Have you ever been left baffled by a speaker who assumed you know far more than you do. This curse of knowledge can lead us to lose empathy with our learner’s struggles. If you read that last link try the ‘rabbit illusion ‘ on someone else.

Strategies to Reduce Cognitive Load

  1. Break down bigger and more difficult concepts into smaller ‘chunks’ to reduce the intrinsic load. Consider carefully what order to deliver these in. As an example to me as a physics teacher, you cannot understand Electricity without having a clear knowledge of Forces.
  2. Cut out all redundant material even if it is interesting. Focus on exactly what you want them to learn
  3. Use both the visual and auditory channels. Use images and a commentary. Note though that reading exactly what is on a Powerpoint presentation actually increases cognitive load as our working memory tries to process the same information in different ways and at different rates. If you do have a lot of text on a presentation then allow the students to read it first, then summarise the points.
  4. Scaffold their learning; Give lots of worked examples showing each step in turn before expecting your students to solve the problems themselves.
  5. If you have labelled images in your presentation, make sure the labels are close to the feature being labelled. Don’t have any labels not needed and restrict the number of them shown
  6. Have your students collaborate. Group work on high challenge activities can share the cognitive load and lead to effective learning.
  7. Have your students generate their own thoughts. have them write summaries, create their own notes etc. How often does a concept seem to make sense at the time, but later we struggle to explain it.

Please add any thoughts and comments

Part 3 is coming soon



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