Cognitive Loading

– the big thing in teaching

Cognitive Load Theory develops instructional techniques to maximise learning that involves teachers to show students what to do and how to do rather than making students construct information themselves.

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Cognitive Load Theory develops instructional techniques to maximise learning that involves teachers to show students what to do and how to do rather than making students construct information themselves.

The 21st century known for its knowledge explosion, digital apps and technological revolution is forcing every learner to acquire the most in a very short period of time. In accordance to the change, different teaching strategies are being effectively utilised to assist learners acquire deep and long-lasting information. All learning theories right from behaviourism to connectivism is being linked with the design of the brain one way or the other. The Cognitive Load Theory, based on the limitations of brain, which is of broad and current interest now among educationalists, was designed by John Sweller and his colleagues in the1980s at the School of Education, University of New South Wales. This theory is constructed on a number of widely accepted theories about how human brain process and store information. Cognitive Load Theory develops instructional techniques to maximise learning that involves teachers to show students what to do and how to do rather than making students construct information themselves.

This theory is framed on two commonly accepted concepts. The first is that there is a limit to how much new information the human brain can process at one time. The second is that there are no known limits to how much stored information can be processed at one time. In other words, when the content is new and complex, to maximise learning, teachers can reduce the load on students and when the content is easy, teachers can gradually increase the complexity of the lesson.

How human brains learn?

The human brain contains two types of memory: working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is very limited in capacity. As learning experiences typically involve new information, the capacity of working memory makes it difficult for many people to assimilate more than four to five bits of information simultaneously. New information in working memory is temporary. It is either encoded into long-term memory or it decays or is replaced. Unless it is actively attended to or rehearsed, information in working memory has a short duration of around 10-15 seconds (Goldstein).Though working memory is small, it is the active processing centre of the brain, the site for receiving and processing information, solving problems, performing tasks and learning process. Long term memory has vast capacity that stores information semi permanently, but it cannot engage in thinking or learning process.

To understand cognitive load theory, one needs to know how working memory and long term memory process information. Learning occurs when information from working memory is encoded in long-term memory. Information in long-term memory is organized into schemata. Schemata are higher order structures composed of multiple elements that help to reduce the overload on working memory. Long-term memory encompasses three operations: encoding, storage and retrieval. There is a continuous transfer of information between long-term memory and working memory—both retrieval and transfer. Working memory, in sum, is a narrow channel that tolerates a very low cognitive load. Yet all new information must navigate this passage to reach the brain’s long-term storehouse. Working memory, therefore, is the bottleneck that constrains learning. When working memory is overloaded with a lot of information at the same time, it cannot be encoded effectively in long-term memory, as information will be confused or misinterpreted. It takes strenuous mental effort to hold information in working memory for an extended time and can also be a cause of cognitive overwhelm. To maximize learning of any kind, educators must work carefully within working memory’s cognitive load.

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive load theory is about optimising the load on students’ working memories to help maximise their learning. In psychologists’ view, as working memory has a limited capacity, instructional methods should avoid overloading it with additional activities that don’t directly contribute to learning. Cognitive load is of three types namely intrinsic, extraneous and germane. Intrinsic cognitive load refers to the inherent difficulty of the subject matter to be learnt. It is affected by the complex nature of the material and the previous knowledge of the topic. The extraneous cognitive load is related to how the subject matter is taught rather than its inherent difficulty. 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 and so the concept being presented becomes more complex and difficult to grasp, and often misdirect students. Teachers can reduce the load on the students by employing more effective teaching techniques and presentation methods. Germane cognitive load refers to the load imposed on the working memory by the process of learning. It is the process of transferring information into the long term memory through schema construction. It helps in comprehending new information and assists in learning new skills.

Cognitive loading in classrooms

CLT helps teachers embrace certain strategies, so that the information will be stored in long term memory, and students can recall it when needed. For this teachers can introduce new and complex information in short bursts followed by practice, questioning and comprehension activities to ascertain students’ understanding before bringing together the topic as a whole. While teaching new content and skills in math, teacher has to start with a lot of worked examples, followed by partially solved sums and then giving opportunities to work out problems independently. Worked example effect and problem solving tasks reduce students’ working memory load and helps in transferring knowledge to long-term memory. When teachers present a large amount of information in both spoken and written form, extraneous loading occurs. More learning can happen if one of them is presented at a time rather than both. Teachers should ensure that the materials presented in the class are simple, clutter free and easy to understand. It also helps learners to pay more devotion to learning and makes learning more effective. Superfluous ppt images that extend redundant information and sensory stimulation that enhances distractions during tasks like extensive writing and problem solving have be avoided. When multiple sources of visual information such as diagrams, labels, and explanatory text are delivered at a time, attention gets divided among them. This causes cognitive loading and hence the split-attention effect can be reduced by replacing some of the visual information with auditory information. To limit this loading, teachers can also present information by merging visual and auditory materials. Learning environments based on CLT minimize wasted mental resources and put all these limited mental resources to produce maximum learning. As per the British Educationalist, Dylan Williams, Cognitive Load Theory is based on human cognitive system and grounded in humanl earning process.

Teachers can reduce the load on the students by employing more effective teaching techniques and presentation methods. Germane cognitive load refers to the load imposed on the working memory by the process of learning.. It helps in comprehending new information and assists in learning new skills.

Dr. Jayalekshmi Rajasekaran is a highly skilled, talented professional training consultant with diverse experience in conducting enrichment programmes for teachers. As a proactive and self directed trainer she offers an array of skills in teacher development, mentoring, coaching and counselling. She holds a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and is a certified student counsellor with nearly a decade of experience in guiding adolescent students aged 13-18 in career development, academic achievement and personal, social and behavioural issues.