Cognitive Load Theory – what to do

As a sister blog to Andy Tharby’s Cognitive Load Theory post on the Durrington Research School website, this piece will focus on practical applications for classroom teachers.

In order to dovetail with the Research School blog, these strategies will be arranged and preceded by information from research published by the Department for Education in New South Wales, Australia: Cognitive load theory in practice: Examples for the classroom.


Strategy 1: Tailor lessons according to students’ existing knowledge and skill

One of the most important implications of cognitive load theory for teaching practice is the need to optimise students’ cognitive load, by striking the right balance between too much and too little load. To do this effectively, teachers need to have a strong understanding of where students already sit in their learning.

  • Introduce new, and in particular complex, information in short chunks.  After each chunk use questioning or comprehension activities to check understanding.
  • Before asking students to apply a technique or concept you have previously taught, precede this by recapping the technique or concept.  Use a familiar example to do this before asking students to apply it to something unfamiliar.

Strategy 2: Use lots of worked examples to teach students new content and skills

A ‘worked example’ is a problem that has already been solved for the student, with every step fully explained and clearly shown. Research consistently demonstrates that students who are given lots of worked examples learn new content more effectively than students who are required to solve the same problem themselves.

  • When asking students to complete a task, have a completed version of the same task alongside it for reference.  This reduces extraneous cognitive load as students will not be required to attend to the instructions for how to complete the task as well as the task itself.
  • Provide annotations on pieces of complex extended writing (i.e. Shakespeare) for which comprehension would make the intrinsic cognitive load of the task too high for students to make effective inferences.

Strategy 3: Gradually increase independent problem-solving as students become more proficient

While fully guided instruction is very effective for teaching students new material, it becomes less effective as students become more expert at a particular skill. Eventually, fully guided instruction becomes redundant or even counter-productive and students benefit more from independent problem-solving. As students become more skilled at solving a particular type of problem, they should gradually be given more opportunities for independent problem-solving.

  • Omit some steps from a worked example.
  • Gradually give students fewer worked examples.

Strategy 4: Cut out inessential information

We sometimes assume that providing students with extra information is helpful, or at the very least harmless. However, presenting students with inessential information can hinder learning. Inessential information can be information that students already know, additional information that is not directly relevant to the lesson, or the same information presented in multiple forms.

  • Pare down your PowerPoints to only the most essential text and a few key images.
  • Never talk over students while they are reading.
  • Avoid overly busy classroom displays around your whiteboard.
  • Once students are familiar with a  particular task, do not give them instructions on how to complete it.

Strategy 5: Present all essential information together

Cognitive overload can occur when students have to split their attention between two or more sources of information that have been presented separately, but can only be understood in reference to each other.

  • If you wish to provide a labelled diagram or map, ensure the labels are written directly on to it rather than being on a different sheet or even alongside.  Having to go back and forth will have a negative effect on cognitive load.
  • Have instructions incorporated into the task, rather than on a separate sheet.  So if students are filling in a spreadsheet, have the blank version contain the instructions on what to do.

Strategy 6: Simplify complex information by presenting it both orally and visually

When there are two or more sources of information that can only be understood in reference to each other, cognitive load can be managed by presenting information both orally and visually. This strategy increases the capacity of students’ working memories, creating more mental space for learning.

  • When producing mindmaps on the board use a combination of both words and pictures with the visuals used to represent the overall topics and the words for the more precise details.
  • When explaining a new concept use a PowerPoint containing only images.  Simply explain the concept verbally while making reference to each image.

Strategy 7: Encourage students to imagine concepts and procedures that they have learnt

Encouraging students to visualise what they have learnt helps them to better understand and recall the information. Once students have a good grasp of the content, the mental process of visualising helps students to store the information more effectively in their long-term memories. This strategy should only be used once students are familiar with the content, as visualising imposes quite a heavy cognitive load.

  • In practical subjects, ask students to visualise the procedure you taught them in the previous lesson at the start of the next one.  Ask them to do this several times and then write down all the steps.
  • Ask students to visualise a concrete example that helps explain an abstract concept.  So if you were explaining the idea of scarcity, ask them to imagine a cinema with all the seats slowly filling up.

Posted by Chris Runeckles

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