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news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Cognitive Load — It’s Not Just For Kids

Picture is from Wikimedia Commons, some rights reserved.Since I am overwhelmed and drawing a bit of a blank today, I thought I would think (and also write) about the theory behind my full head. One of the textbooks for a grad school class I am just finishing is called Efficiency in Learning. I never thought I’d hear myself say this, especially since I still haven’t finished reading the book, but people should really look into this. The book discusses the evidence behind the theory of cognitive load as well as strategies for managing and preventing it.

So, what is cognitive load? Let’s say you’re trying to type a blog and someone keeps asking you questions about where something should be filed. Oh wait, that’s what is happening to me right now. Let’s say you’re watching a tutorial about how to complete a task or procedure, and there is text on the screen that is, at the same time, being narrated by a pleasant voice. There are also occasional pop-ups with “Did You Know” and “Little Known Fact,” sharing interesting but not incredibly relevant tidbits of information. You begin to feel stressed out, and it isn’t long before you decide to turn off the speakers and look for ways to block the pop-ups.

You are receiving too much information in too many formats, and it begins to overload your working memory. We experience this during “death by PowerPoint” presentations when a speaker stands beside a screen, with slides containing FAR too many bullet points of text that’s too small to read, but that’s okay because he or she is reading the entire thing to you anyway. Even under ideal circumstances, when you’re not thinking of all the other life details racing through your mind (such as when you’re going to get that Christmas shopping done, what you need to pack for an upcoming trip, and who you might want to get together with during your “trip home” for the holidays), if you’re getting too much external stimulus, you can’t focus or get anything done.

The book I mentioned addresses how we can design instruction to avoid cognitive load in learners. What do you want them to learn? Now, distill it down to only the necessary parts. You can have links at the end to more information if they crave such extraneous knowledge. If it’s on the screen, don’t say it as well. Instead, provide basic text and augment it with longer audio explanations if necessary.

Do we do this in our teaching? Do we do this in our use of technology? Do we teach students to adhere to these same principles in the products they create? I find myself looking everywhere in my life and finding examples of “done right” and “done wrong” when it comes to this brain overload idea. When we expect my son (a kindergartener) to watch, follow along, and listen, all at once while we get louder and more frustrated, is this an ideal learning moment? I find that when I slow down, first talk about what we will do, and then demonstrate once, I can have him follow along with me the second time. It takes more time at first, yes. But we only have to go through this longer process one time, rather than repeating the same ineffective (and slightly insane) performance until we just give up in frustration and tears.

As you plan instruction, whether it’s formal or informal, in a classroom or at home, consider this concept of cognitive load. Are we feeding the senses too much when we want to get a simple message across? Don’t believe everything you hear about today’s hyperactive generation of kids who need constant sensory stimulation from all angles. They really just want you to shut up, calm down, and help them learn.

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