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5 common questions about using Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom


Cognitive Load Theory has arguably been one of the most popular and implemented psychological theories in education over the past five years. It has been the foundation for a range of strategies that include how we present information and how we support students. Backed by an abundance of peer-reviewed research, it provides a great basis for becoming more evidence-informed.

As teachers experiment with implementing the range of strategies available, we have heard many challenging questions asked about putting Cognitive Load Theory into practice. So, we’ve joined forces with Mark Roberts to attempt to answer them.

But before we jump into the five Cognitive Load Theory implementation questions, a quick caveat: many of the answers depend on each classroom’s unique circumstances. Off-the-shelf answers don’t work everywhere. Instead of seeing this as dogma, instead view the suggestions below as a rough guideline or starting point for a discussion. Likewise, there is still so much we don’t know that research hasn’t yet uncovered. Our answers represent our current best guess, nothing more.

So, let’s jump right in to the five different effects of Cognitive Load Theory, with five questions that arise from teachers about them…

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Effect 1: The Split Attention Effect

What is the Split Attention Effect?

The Split Attention Effect occurs when students who are learning something must refer to two separate information sources at the same time. Moving back and forth between sources takes time, effort and mental energy and places an additional load on the brain.

One such example is the use of non-integrated diagrams, which place an extra load compared to integrated diagrams, as we can see from the image below:

conventional-vs-integrated-diagrams-800px-1
Frequently asked question about the Split Attention Effect:

“Exam questions in my subject use non-integrated diagrams. Is it better to use integrated diagrams at Key Stage 3 then gradually transition to non-integrated diagrams during Key Stage 4? Or do they need to get used to the format from the outset, despite struggling with the load imposed by these diagrams?”

This is an interesting one, as there is some good evidence based on a recent large scale Retrieval Practice review that the nearer the test, the more you want to match the retrieval format that will appear in the exam. That being said, there is a key difference between learning and performance. In the learning phase, we want to maximise both efficiency (i.e., speed) and effectiveness (i.e., impact). Evidence suggests that integrated diagrams are better for both.

Therefore, having the students maximise their learning time (especially if the information is new or complex) with integrated diagrams would make sense. Nonetheless, it would certainly be a good idea to familiarise them with the exam format of conventional diagrams prior to the exam, so that it isn’t a surprise.

Effect 2: The Redundancy Effect

What is the Redundancy Effect?

The Redundancy Effect happens when the same information is presented simultaneously in multiple forms or is explained unnecessarily. Material that isn’t needed for understanding hinders rather than helps students by adding to their cognitive load.

Classic examples of this effect include when a teacher reminds students of instructions when they have already understood the task and are trying to focus on it, or when a teacher reads out words from a PowerPoint slide that students can read for themselves.

Frequently asked question about the Redundancy Effect

“Reading over my slides can add unnecessary load. But what if students haven’t heard certain words pronounced before? Do I need to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the learning benefits outweigh the risks of additional load?”

If the information that the students are being asked to read is simple and short, then reading the slides to them is unlikely to make much of a negative impact at all. Likewise, if the students don’t know how the word sounds, reading it to them may be beneficial. Finally, if they are already very familiar with the content, us reading it to them is unlikely to add too much of a tax to their working memory.

However, if there is a lot of content to get through (a lot of bullet points, for example) or the content is complex, then reading it out to them may create extra load. This is because people read at different speeds to what we speak at. They therefore have to make the choice to either listen to us or read the slide themselves. Doing both creates extra load.

It is always good to judge this on a case-by-case basis. You know your students and your topic. And as you are the expert in the room, you are best placed to make that judgement call for each specific situation.

Effect 3: The Expertise Reversal Effect

What is the Expertise Reversal Effect?

Instructional techniques such as worked examples and other scaffolds are very effective for novice learners. Yet the Expertise Reversal Effect tells us that these helpful approaches lose their effectiveness and can even provide an unwanted distraction when used with more experienced learners.

For example, if we were to provide a scaffold to students who are already skilled at writing essay introductions, it may cause an extra burden on working memory, as students realise they don’t need to use the model.

Frequently asked question about the Expertise Reversal Effect

“As my students develop knowledge, my worked examples might interfere with their learning. But what’s the best way to manage reducing the use of worked examples in a classroom of 30 students, where there is usually a spectrum of expertise?”

This is why teaching is so much harder than 1-1 tutoring. It is impossible to optimise learning for all students within one lesson. All we can do is try to optimise it for as many as we can, while offering extra support/challenge for those who need it.

Having said that, the level of “ability” for your students compared to each other is more likely to be similar than it is different. A range will, of course, exist, but will probably exist on a bell-curve (i.e., there will be a large majority near the average).

It would be folly to try to differentiate by task for each student under the banner of “Cognitive Load Theory”. Go for the format you think is optimal for most and if in doubt, remember it is probably better to err on the side of caution and over-learn material than it is to assume expertise and set independent tasks too early; this can be both stressful and ineffective for learners who are early on in their learning journey.

Effect 4: The Transient Information Effect

What is the Transient Information Effect?

The Transient Information Effect occurs when explanatory information disappears before students have had the chance to process it. Compared to more permanent sources of information, this can result in inferior learning. For example, if during a lesson a teacher talks students through a diagram on the board, while the diagram remains there for students to see, the teacher’s verbal explanation is only temporary and can be easily forgotten.

Frequently asked question about the Transient Information Effect

“If I give students notes from the lesson (for example by providing copies of my slides, with additional notes attached), this helps minimise the Transient Information Effect. But are the benefits outweighed by the negative impact on concentration (as research often suggests) when students know in advance that the notes will be provided afterwards?”

This is a great question, as the research on note-taking is fascinating. Generally speaking, getting students to take notes themselves, by hand, helps improve their memory as they need to think deeply about what notes they are taking. However, if we don’t provide a structure to this, they may try to write everything down at the expense of really listening and thinking about what their teacher is saying.

A range of potential answers exists:

  • Provide incomplete notes – This ensures students still have to pay attention.
  • Allocate time to take notesEvidence suggests that taking summary notes instead of throughout the lesson may be beneficial.
  • Consider what handouts you give students – If a handout is instructional or offers reminders, it may be beneficial to give to students. On the other hand, if it is only helping them connect to previous ideas, consider getting them to do this themselves (as we want new ideas to connect to their own existing schema – not ours).

Effect 5: High Element Interactivity

What is High Element Interactivity?

While it’s not an effect like the previous examples, High Element Interactivity is an important factor to take into account when attempting to optimise cognitive load in learning. Element interactivity explains the complexity of a task due to the different connected elements involved. These different elements must be processed concurrently in working memory, which leads to a high load for novice learners.

Frequently asked question about High Element Interactivity

“When I live model a paragraph under the visualiser and verbalise my thinking, I’m providing a worked example. This reduces cognitive load by narrowing down the high element interactivity involved in writing (thinking about spelling, punctuation, syntax, vocabulary choice, neat handwriting etc.). But how do I optimise thinking aloud so that I don’t introduce the Redundancy Effect and overload them cognitively?”

This is one of the reasons why visualisers can be a really useful tool. There is no simple neat answer to the question, probably because one of the challenges of Cognitive Load Theory is that it is quite hard to measure cognitive load (especially in a large classroom setting). This is where Checking for Understanding becomes really important.

If a large percentage of your class can demonstrate that they are following and understand your process, you probably aren’t overloading them with the Redundancy Effect. This is why things such as mini white boards and cold calling can be a really useful tool.

Another thing to be aware of if you’re looking to optimise thinking aloud is the type of language you are using. If it relies on a lot of definitions or technical terms, ensure these terms are learnt prior to this modelling. This is known as “pre-teaching”. By using clear, concise and consistent language that your students already understand, we reduce one of the burdens on working memory, ensuring that there is more capacity to focus on your explanation.

Final Thought

As the relentless march towards being evidence-informed continues, often to the tune of the science of learning, more of this sort of questions are going to arise – which is brilliant. It means our staff are engaged in rich, deep and nuanced conversation about their craft.

Research can point us in the right direction but it can never provide all the nuance or contexts that arise in different classrooms. That is why trial and error, teacher judgement and ongoing discussion are going to be key to unlocking the full potential of teaching and learning research, especially for the likes of Cognitive Load Theory.

This blog was co-written by Bradley Busch (InnerDrive) and Mark Roberts. You can follow him on Twitter @mr_englishteach.

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