Mr Duckworth: Gets it together

How cognitive load theory has changed what I do in the classroom.

It has only been in the last few years that I have been introduced to Cognitive Load Theory. I suppose some elements of it were there in my training – the idea of chunking up material and… nothing else (I have already started writing out my experiences of training to teach in 2006 here). A shame really. In case you are unfamiliar with it let me start by trying to give a really brief outline of Cognitive Load Theory.

There are two types of memory – working memory and long-term memory. Long-term memory can be seen as having unlimited capacity. Working memory can only hold a few pieces of information at a time. Knowledge in long-term memory can be used to support the processes in working memory. Putting too much of a demand on working memory will prevent it working effectively.

Sorry if you are too young to know what this is.

The theory has a number of implications for what we do in the classroom:

  • Having related knowledge in long-term memory aids thinking and learning.
  • Too much new information at one time is bad for learning.
  • Asking people to read and listen at the same time overloads working memory.
  • The harder a task is, the more load placed on the working memory.
  • We can reduce (some) cognitive load with well planned support and resources.

Now write down everything you can remember about cognitive load theory from memory. Check back when you are done.

How did you do? Look back at the information and add anything you were missing to your notes.

How has my teaching changed?

First of all the implications I presented for teaching may seem obvious, the kind of thing good teachers do anyway. This may be the case but understanding why these work is important. So, here are some things that I have changed about my teaching by engaging with Cognitive Load Theory.

Chunking it up…even more.

Chunks of pavement.

We are all aware that too much new information is a problem. Cognitive Load Theory offers an explanation for why this is the case. It has also always been clear that chunking up information helps. The thing that has changed for me is that I chunk the information even more. I build in regular places for students to note down key information I have explained, from memory. This reduces future cognitive load. It also offers opportunities to quickly test what students have and have not understood. Often this will happen 3 or 4 times during an explanation as they add extra knowledge. They can then use their notes later as an aid to working memory. I also build opportunities for them to check their notes against the key information and add missing parts. It also means that as we move on to the next chunk of information it is adding onto knowledge than they already have worked with, aiding understanding.

Reducing visual clutter.

Minimalism or just bad painting?

I like having a PowerPoint presentation to go with most of my lessons. It makes me feel prepared. It gives me a sense of safety. It allows me to have key material ready to use. It can also be a real issue for a student’s cognitive load. I have, therefore, changed the way I use my presentations. Gone are large sections of text, gone are unnecessary images, gone are written versions of what I will say. My lesson presentations now contain key headings a few very short notes about what I will say (maybe more for me than the students…), some questions and tasks and any images that are needed for the lesson. All of these are presented in a minimalistic way. I never read out what is displayed on the board. I often blank the presentation when I am speaking to the class. I am trying to reduces the extraneous cognitive load to leave more available to work on the key tasks.

On the left an old version of the lesson slide. On the right is a newer version. After explaining the key ideas student would write these down from memory.

More retrieval practice.

The skeleton is thinking of the answers…

I also ensure that I regularly give opportunities for students to attempt to retrieve knowledge from long-term memory. Lessons often start with key questions about previous learning. The aim is to check knowledge that relates to the current lesson. Correct answers are provided to deal with misconceptions and lacking knowledge. By building in these opportunities I am supporting students in accessing knowledge that will help with the current learning. If this knowledge is missing or incomplete I am providing it. Again the aim is to reduce the extraneous cognitive load, here by ensuring that related-knowledge is available. This again leaves more working memory to use on the activities I set.

So what?

All of this is done with one aim in mind, to improve the learning in my classroom. By reducing the extraneous cognitive load I am allowing students to apply more ‘brain power’ to the current learning. This means there is more working memory available to use on the intrinsic cognitive load of a task – I can set more challenging work. I am also aiming to avoid working memory breakdown, where instructions will be misunderstood or ignored, where students will mentally check out of the lesson.

These are some of the things I am doing due to Cognitive Load Theory. Why not try some yourself? Even better, suggest other ways I can use Cognitive Load Theory or point out the mistakes I have made when writing this.

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