Cognitive Load Theory, which emphasises the limited capacity of working memory, is increasingly popular within education. Knowing how students can avoid a cognitive overload can help enhance teaching and improve students’ learning.
There are many principles of Cognitive Load Theory, but we wanted to shift our attention towards three specific ones: the Split Attention Effect, the Redundancy Effect and the Coherency Effect. Why? Well, they appear similar at first, and are as a result often get mixed up with each other (something we have certainly been guilty of in the past).
So, let’s take a look at these three effects and, crucially, the key differences between them…
What is the Split Attention Effect?
The Split Attention Effect happens when students are required to refer to multiple sources of information simultaneously that are integral to the learning. Therefore, they need to constantly switch between the different pieces of information, which creates an extra load on their brain. This load requires time, effort, and energy.
Let’s look at an example: the Split Attention Effect could occur if you provide your students with a diagram that has all the written labels on the left, and the image component on the right. This would require your students to constantly switch between the two sides of the slide or handout.
A solution to minimise this would be to use an integrated diagram, combining both types of information. This is supported by research, with a study showing that students who used an integrated diagram achieved 22% higher marks on average in comparison to their peers who had a conventional diagram.
What is the Redundancy Effect?
The Redundancy Effect occurs when the same information is repeated in two different formats. This can clog up students’ working memory and cause students to forget the important information they actually need to know.
A common example is when the same information is repeated in both a written and spoken format. For example, a teacher might read a quote from the screen, whilst students are also reading it. Having this information repeated will result in students not fully processing what they are listening to or reading.
What is the Coherency Effect?
The Coherency Effect is all about removing irrelevant material from the material. Although having additional material can make the lesson more interesting, it can create a cognitive overload. This is because students are distracted when trying to process the material, which may hinder learning.
One example of this is having excessive PowerPoint animations. In a study, students learnt different processes using narration and animation. When learning, they either had background music, sounds, both or neither. The researchers found that students who learnt with neither generally performed the best (especially if it was irrelevant to the learning). Therefore, cutting down excessive background noise or animations when they are unnecessary can help students stay focused on the task.
What are the differences between them?
Let’s first address the similarities: all three of these effects deal with placing an unnecessary burden on working memory because of the way the information is presented.
However, they do this in very different ways, making them three distinct principles:
- The Split Attention Effect occurs when students need to access different pieces of important information in different locations, requiring them to constantly switch their attention.
- The Redundancy Effect, however, is when the same information is repeated in two different ways.
- The Coherency Effect, finally, refers to any additional information that is included in material without being relevant to learning or necessary in this context.
Understanding these three effects and how to tell them apart can help you better manage the limitations of working memory in your classroom.
Split Attention Effect, Redundancy Effect and Coherency Effect are all part of Cognitive Load Theory. Although all three create an extra burden on working memory, they do this in different ways.
Knowing the key differences between these three effects can be effective in knowing how to reduce them in your classroom, which will in turn help enhance your students’ learning and improve their academic performance.
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