Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory by Nicola Gunton

Having delivered the Twilight INSET on based Memorable Teaching by Peps Mccrea and working with an NQT I have become more interested in cognitive load. In the INSET session I introduced this idea by having a written task to read and a commentary on a rugby match. It was interesting to watch experienced teachers, who have been learning for a considerable time, struggle and no-one was able to do both. Their interest also affected which task they chose to attempt. One colleague was unable to do either and found herself surprised that she couldn’t focus and actually began to feel quite unwell.

I have also been working with an NQT to help her realise how much of an expert she is compared with her students. She has developed her lessons so that she is able to deliver complex ideas but from the first principles so that students can access the learning from their understanding, but not overload them with information and content.

Below are some points from an article from Impact Issue 2 Spring 2018 that I have used with the book to alter my teaching practice:

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is based on the idea that our working memory can only deal with a limited amount of information at a time. It is worth remembering that in a classroom this information may not only be the information you are delivering. There are the displays around the room, the noise from other rooms as well as the noise in the classroom, possibly you; if you are explaining something whilst asking them to read. One student at the end of the year walked up to his maths teacher and proudly told her he had memorised the value of pi that was displayed around every wall of the room, probably not what the teacher had intended and how much thinking time had he lost regarding his maths lessons.

‘A description of cognitive load says that the cognitive load involved in a task is the cognitive effort (or amount of information processing) required by a person to perform this task. Reif (2010 p361)’

The theory has three forms of cognitive load

Intrinsic cognitive load

This is the inherent difficulty of the material itself.

This has been the area that my NQT has struggled with as being an ‘expert’ herself she is sometimes not aware of how difficult the information she is presenting may be for the less able students. It is easy for all of us to forget how much our knowledge and understanding has developed since we were first learning these ideas. Also it is highly likely that we were reasonably good at learning and were perhaps able to reduce our cognitive load.

Extraneous cognitive load

This is the load generated by the way the material is presented, and which does not aid learning.

I have observed lessons where I have looked at the PowerPoint slide and been genuinely amazed at the amount of information on them. Sometimes even the use of colour has distracted me from being able to process the information. I couldn’t read and process it in the time allowed and I’m guessing this was the case for the majority of the students in the room.

Germane cognitive load

The elements that aid information processing and contribute to the development of ‘schemas’.

Obviously this is the cognitive load that we want in our lessons.

I have used these ideas to reduce the information on a slide. I have used diagrams whenever possible, as we are able to read text and diagrams at once without increasing the load too greatly. I now give students time to read a slide before launching in to my explanation and I have reduced the reading from a slide that I do. I use animation to add small amounts of text at a time so that students know where to focus their attention. This is particularly the case with lower ability students so that may only have one sort sentence to read at a time.

Once we have the knowledge in the working memory we need to move it into the long-term memory as this then gives the student working memory space for the next task. If we are successful in this, then the students are able to use this knowledge for the next task and in the following lessons.

I have also spent time thinking about the steps to understanding a new idea and how we can make it as sequential as possible. How can I link to other ideas so that students can easily see where to fit it into their long-term memory? When asking students to follow a method I make it as simple as possible and demonstrate it as they tell me what to do.

My A level students particularly benefit from me going through an example question on the board and explaining my thinking as I move from step to step. I have also used this approach but asked a student to explain every step and why they were making the decisions they did in order to obtain the answers. I then get the students to start the calculation and then stop them and explain the next steps.

I am sure there are aspects of this that you do already in your practice but maybe there is a lesson or scheme of work that on reflection might benefit from using these ideas. Perhaps you will give more thought to your displays and at times you might decide to cover them or alternatively alter them to spark creativity.



About The Author

Fergal Moane

Deputy Headteacher

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