Cognitive Load Theory: Helping People Learn Effectively
Have you attended a training p program or classroom where you could not remember anything because the course material was too complex? Or, you could not grasp any knowledge because the instructor went through the course with the speed of light? Such poorly designed programs can cause more harm to the growth of any student than good.
Sometimes, it even becomes impossible for students to process any information because of the unnecessary demands imposed on them by the teachers. All these things accomplish nothing but impeding the process of learning.
It is also a shame that school, colleges and universities across the world spend millions of dollars and put considerable effort on designing syllabi and courses. There are education programs which highlight how to read and write valid assessments, how to write papers and how to create lesson plans.
However, there is perhaps not even a single program which enables teachers to effectively impart their knowledge to students and the students to learn effectively.
Similarly, there is hardly any program which considers brain’s capacities and limitations when it comes to learning new things. How does the brain remember? How our memory works? Changing behaviors through acquiring and retaining new knowledge is one of the major goals of schools and universities. It is only possible if we enable both teachers and students to understand how our brain and memory work.
Similarly, they should also understand how to properly apply their knowledge of brain’s functions and limitations to better optimize classroom study and ensure retention of information.
THE COGNITIVE LOAD THEORY
One particular theory which aims at helping educationists understand the process is the Cognitive Load Theory. It has become one of the most popular teaching theories or methods over the years.
Currently considered as the “next big thing in teaching”, this particular theory enables both teachers and the students to teach and learn respectively and effectively by reducing their cognitive loads.
John Sweller, the educational psychologist at University of New South Wales, originally proposed the theory in 1988. He basically improved the Working Memory Model of Memory presented by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch in 1974. According to this model, you have to process and rehearse visual and auditory information more often than everyday observations in order to develop long-term memories.
John Sweller strongly believed that our cognitive load increases because we have to process a lot of factors at a time along with the actual knowledge we are trying to acquire. This makes it difficult for us to pay attention to the necessary information and make learning needlessly complex. As a result, the learning becomes less effective because you are unable to pay necessary devotion to learning and memorizing due to the increasing cognitive load.
The Cognitive Load Theory presents different ways in which teachers can reduce the cognitive load of their students. In addition, it proposes different teaching techniques, ensuring the formation and retention of new memories.
DETAILED EXPLANATION OF COGNITIVE LOAD THEORY
CLTproposes that you can only learn effectively and retain information for a long time if the learning conditions and your cognitive nature are in perfect alignment with each other. In other words, a human brain is capable of doing so many things at a time and therefore, we should be careful and intentional of what we do at any given time.
Put another way, the theory suggests that we should design learning experiences in such a way that they ensure formation of new memory schemas by reducing “load” on our working memory. It is important because our short term memory is limited and putting extrapressure on it by doing so many things at a time only increases our cognitive load.
It is possible to reduce cognitive load and form new schemas simultaneously only in the ideal world. In real world, you cannot accomplish both tasks satisfactorily at the same time. Therefore, it is imperative for the teachers to have to be specific about what is being taught and the sequence of learning as well as the nature of the learning.
No doubt students need to be crystal clear what they learned about a particular thing. However, they also need to have full grasp of domain specific definitions and knowledge.
For instance, you would be overloading your students if you ask them to critically examine all the government systems in the world (high-order thinking) while also defining and understanding what a government system is. In this case, students would have to constantly assess their short term memory while processing information because they still have no knowledge or understanding of a government system.
This is because there is no concept of a “government system” in their long-term memory. As a result, they muddle their short term memory, where newly acquired information is originally stored, before moving the new knowledge to emerging or existing schemes.
It will be possible for the students to learn despite of unfavorable conditions. However, they will have to struggle a lot and go against the way their brains work just because the instructional design in this example is non-optimal for effective learning.
You should also have full understanding of how our brain and memory work in order to understand the cognitive load theory. Our working memory stores information for short amount of time after processing the new material. However, it is unable to hold large amount of information at any given time. The total capacity of our working memory also varies among individuals. On the other hand, it isour long-term memory whichretains the information, which the working memory cannot store for long, for years to come.
The cognitive load theory postulates that our long-term memory holds information for a long period of time as schemas. Subsequently, schemas organize the information and enable its easy retrieval whenever required. In this regard, more the schemas in our long-term memory less will be the cognitive load on our working memory.
There are many examples of schemes created over the years. For instance, if asked for in which order you should solve multiple arithmetic operations in a given problem, you would probably recall DMAS rule from your elementary mathematics class. Our long-term memory is able to retain and retrieve this information simply by remembering an acronym, reducing your cognitive load in the process.
In an alternative scenario, you would ask your working memory to store and retrieve Division, Multiplication, Addition and Subtraction separately. You would severely overload your working memory if you load it with four unrelated pieces of information. However, you would dramatically decrease the cognitive load on your working memoryby remembering DMAS rule because it only represents a single schema which you can retrieve without any real hassle.
TYPES OF COGNITIVE LOAD
In the context of above discussion, it is also important to discuss some types of cognitive load. There are in fact three main types of cognitive loads and they all complement each other. Therefore, you need to factor in all of them in order to calculate total cognitive load on your memory.
Intrinsic Cognitive Load
When intrinsic qualities of information being learnt make demands of a learner and put pressure or load on his working memory, it is called intrinsic cognitive load. This particular load depends upon two factors. The first one is your ability to comprehend new information as well how complex the information being presented is.
It is also extremely difficult to avoid or eliminate this particular type of load due to its complex nature. Obviously, it is always more difficult and challenging to accomplish a difficult task (solving a complex equation) than solving a simple problem such as multiplying two numbers. However, you can always breakdown adifficult task into smaller and simpler activities to decrease the pressure on your memory. It also makes it easier for you to complete the task individually and in relatively quick time.
Everybody is familiar with the task of assembling cubes to make toys in their childhood. You may also remember that the box always contained step by step assembly instructions instead of one big diagram showing how you can assemble each cube. This is the example of simplifying a complex process into smaller, simpler steps.
In this particular case, you do not have to go through the entire diagram and visualize the whole process. You would only have to understand the smaller, easier tasks in order to set the entire model up. Similarly, you would also be able to concentrate on two to three cubesyou need in every step. It is much easier than playing with all of cubes and other parts simultaneously.
Extraneous Cognitive Load
This type of load is created when the students have to meet extra requirements and demands of teachers. Sometimes the load is the result of difficult instructions students have to follow. As the name suggests, it is the extra load and has no connection with the learning tasks. Inefficient teaching methods greatly add to the extraneous load as well.
As a result, the concept being presented becomes more complex and difficult to grasp. Moreover, the distracting information or demands often unintentionally misdirect students and they set off on the wrong path.
Another factor that contributes to extraneous load is forcing pupils to remember and practice the lessons. On the other hand, teachers can reduce the load on the students by employing more effective teaching techniques and presentation methods.
There are some types of information which are better understood when you study them in the written form.Similarly, you may need to use diagrams, PowerPoint presentations or videos to better explain some other type of information. For instance, you should use a modal of the solar system or a video to better demonstrate the movement of planets and their moons. Written material will not be of much use in this case.
In fact, the visual demonstration of the solar system will enable students to remember the presentation from start to finish unlike written text where they have to remember the first paragraph to understand the meaning of the last one. Similarly, they would simply look at the diagram for reference wheneverthey could not understand anything about the solar system.
This is the example of highly optimal instructional strategy because it encourages the formation of schemas while decreasing student’s extraneous cognitive load.
Germane Cognitive Load
Unlike the first two types of cognitive load, the students actually need to have germane cognitive lead. This type of load mounts on students due to theformation of new schemas in the long-term memory. It helps in comprehending new information and assists in learning new skills.
A scheme holds certain types of memories regarding different concepts and ideas. It also enables us to retrieve certain information and how to respond whenever we encounter same ideas and concepts in the future.
There are also different types of schemas. There are schemas for objects, persons and places etc. Similarly, memories of certain events and routines fall under the category of ‘script schemas.’ Memories of how different people behave and enact are part of ‘role schemas.’ These schemas inform us what to expect from certain people when you meet them again in future.
It is sometimes intimidating to experience something for the first time such as attending an Asian wedding. This is because we normally don not have a schema or conceptualization of what to expect from such events. As we witness an event or situation for the first time and acquire more knowledge about it, our cognitive load increases. This load in turn enables us to understand what is happening in similar events in future.
APPLICATION OF COGNITIVE LOAD THEORY
You can implement cognitive load theory in any instructional setting such as schools, colleges, universities and even in the training courses organized by various organizations for their employees. However, many other areas have also successfully implemented the cognitive load theory to improve their performance.
The main goal of applying this theory is to minimize the extraneous load and facilitate students to learn more effectively. Similarly, it also encourages instructors to avoid doing a means-end-analysis of a task. Both these things can make the concepts extremely complex and overwhelm the students by imposing extra or unnecessary demands on them.
You can also promote the production of germane cognitive load by developing activities, lesson plans and teaching methods which encourage long-term skill and knowledge acquisition and thus, the creation of new schemas.
It is totally wrong to believe that we can only implement cognitive lead theory in traditional learning environments. You can even apply the theory when you are making a speech or giving an important business presentation to a prospective client. The theory enables you to breakdown each of the points you want to explain in smaller chunks and remove redundant details.
Resultantly, you will be able to explain each point in simple, easy to understand manner. In fact, you explain your point of view more effectively and excitingly simply by decreasing the cognitive load on your brain and tongue.
THE COGNITIVE LOAD THEORY IN CLASSROOMS
Now, let us discuss how to implement the cognitive load theory while giving actual presentation in the classroom. There are many things you, as a teacher, can do to reduce extraneous load on the students and promote the production of germane load right in your classroom.
You also need to answer two questions while thinking about how to present materials to your students in the coming lectures. These questions are:
- What is the best way of presenting the information
- For moving information to existing schemas?
- For creation of new schemas?
- What is the best way of decreasing extraneous load on students while presenting the lecture?
Assuming your students don’t have any knowledge of whatever you are going to teach them, they will load their working memory with a lot of new information. Therefore, employing best methods of presentation is of utmost importance.
You also need to consider the design of the classroom as it can affect students’ psych as well. You also need to keep other aspects of the classroom environment in mind when applying the cognitive load theory.
Following lines explain some of the methods to attain these very important goals.
Rearranging classroom settings regularly to provide more collaborative learning environment to students is getting more and more popular these days. However, it can also lead to the development of extraneous load on students.
Experienced teachers usually place their seats and desks in rows so that all the students may look at the board. This is one of the best methods to eliminate classroom distractions as well. As students no longer face each other, they don’t have to turn around every time they need to receive instructions or ask questions.
Technology has totally changed the way students used to learn just a decade ago and there is nothing inherently wrong in it. However, numerous studies have shown that students tend to remember better when they handwrite their notes and instructions.
Similarly, they are more likely to retain the information when they avoid technological distractions such as laptops, tablets and smartphones etc. You should only allow your students to use these devices in the classroom if they assist them in completing a given task or enhance their understanding of the concepts being taught.
Student collaborations are a good thing. However, sometimes they tend to be counterproductive as well. You should only allow such collaborations in the classroom if they can expand on a concept you are explaining or reinforce student’s understanding of the topic. Group work entails many distractions. Similarly, students will have to utilize their working memory to comprehend the group dynamics and process different rules.
As a result, extraneous load is produced which consumes some of the working memory. This is the memory students actually require to produce intrinsic and germane loads, necessary to retain acquired information.
Presentation of Material
Whatever you are using to present the material, make it simple, clutter free and easy to understand. For example, fun pictures on the slides actually hinder the processing of processing information and are not required at all. The slides should only contain images and text that are directly related to the topic and assist in learning new concepts.
Keeping your presentation techniques and material simple greatly helps you decrease extraneous load in the classroom.
As you might expect, students encounter a lot of distractions in their home. Therefore, it is advisable to reduce the amount of homework as much as possible. Similarly, encourage your students to minimize distractions at their homes and create an environment which fosters effective learning. For instance, they can switch of their televisions, put away their phones and confine themselves to their rooms while doing their homework.
You need to remember that removal of unnecessary distractions is important because it reduces the extraneous load on the student’s working memory. Similarly, never assign homework which introduces new information to the student as it can lead to the development of more extraneous load.
Above mentioned are some of the ways you can implement cognitive load theory while presenting a new concept to the students. The main goal of the theory is to minimize the extraneous load on students. Therefore, it is imperative to createa learning environment which does not put extra pressure on their working memory.
It is pertinent to note that science fullyendorses the trainings based on the cognitive load theory. Therefore, you can improve the teaching methods and achieve higher student success rate by applying thetheory regardless of the type of instructional environment.
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