The Practical Side of Cognitive Load Theory – Education Rickshaw


In one of this blog’s more popular posts, I talked about how reading about cognitive load theory has led to changes in how I think about teaching. Today, I thought I’d describe a number of cognitive load theory-inspired practical applications that I’ve incorporated into my lessons. I hope this post illustrates how engaging with cognitive science can be beneficial to one’s practice.

Click here to get your tickets to my March 23, 2022 webinar on cognitive load theory with InnerDrive.


Some material is more challenging to learn than other material. Multistep tasks and problems that require interdependent information to be processed simultaneously in working memory will overload students if we present it to them all at once. A strategy that I’ve used to build up towards such complex learning is pre-teaching: Teaching bits of the complex material in isolation, such as vocabulary, before proceeding to the main lesson. Pre-teaching vocabulary words before giving students a text containing those words reduces cognitive load and promotes comprehension compared to having to look up – or guess the meaning – of unknown words during reading.

Frontloading Worked Examples

When introducing new material, I show students how to complete the task or solve the problem, rather than expecting them to figure out the material for themselves. Cognitive load theory recommends giving students worked examples – step-by-step instructions and diagrams for how to do something – at the start of the teaching sequence. When students are given a complex task or problem they know nothing about, worked examples help to arm students with the knowledge they need to eventually apply the material, while keeping the cognitive load in check. Without a worked example, students have no other choice but to use inefficient guess-and-check strategies to figure out the material. These are a major contributor of frustration and unproductive cognitive load; If you’ve ever tried to figure out how to play an old board game or assemble a piece of furniture without access to the instructions, you’ll be familiar with the sensation.

Using worked examples in the classroom can look different depending on the subject you’re teaching. When teaching math, I begin new topics by fully working out the first problem on the board, step by step, or by displaying an already worked out problem and having students study it (See the next tip). The ceramics teacher at my school hangs posters in convenient locations around the room that students refer to as they shape their products. A key reason his instruction is consistent with cognitive load theory is that he requires students to study and mimic the relevant handshapes and steps from the posters before he allows students to hop on their potter’s wheels and try them out on the clay. Thinking aloud and acting out processes for students, and playing instructional videos, are additional ways I frontload worked examples so that my students can perform a task or solve a problem on their own.

Study Time and Signaling

When I project a wordy slide or a complex diagram on the board, instead of immediately launching into a lecture about the material, I often begin by having students study it in silence. Once they’ve studied it, investing all of their available mental resources into making sense of it, I begin my explanation of the material, using my hand to point to the specific parts that students should be attending to.

I do this because there’s always the risk that the two sources of information (me talking and the material on the board) will compete with each other. If I project a diagram and immediately start talking over it, I’m expecting my students to simultaneously invest their limited cognitive resources towards the information coming from me; my body language, questioning, and story telling; as well as the eye-candy in the diagram. Some students might flip their attention back and forth, causing the diagram to interfere with the lecture and the lecture to interfere with the diagram. Others will half-listen or tune me out, and some will study parts of the material that are irrelevant to what I’m talking about.

As the intrinsic features of the material we want students to learn can often exceed the limits of working memory, it’s important to either present a small fragment of the material and slowly add to it (See the next tip), or, alternatively, make space for students to study the material in silence before layering on explanation. I’ve personally been using the steps of Stop, Study, Signal:

  1. Stop: I say, In a moment I am going to project a worked example/diagram and I am going to have you study it in silence. I want you to put all of your mental effort into acquiring the information I am projecting.
  2. Study: Once everyone’s eyes and body are focused towards the front, I project the worked example/diagram and say, You may begin.
  3. Signal: Once they’ve studied it (hard) for a good 15-20 seconds, or a bit longer depending on what it is, I say, Eyes on me and I proceed to integrate the worked example/diagram into my lecture by using my hand to signal to the individual parts that students are to be thinking about.

Slow-motion problems

Sometimes the material we teach imposes such a heavy cognitive load that the previous three tips – pre-teaching elements, frontloading worked examples and explanations, and allowing for think/study time – are just not enough to get the job done. Slow-motion problems, a strategy I picked up from reading Greg Ashman’s blog, is when you use mini-whiteboards to scaffold material. Rather than working the entire multipart problem on the board for students, you can show students one small part of the material (e.g., 1/3 + 6/9 = ) and have them copy it on their mini-whiteboards before you proceed to the next part (simplify 6/9 to 1/3). Each time you add something new to the problem (1/3 + 1/3 = ), you check for understanding by having students show you their whiteboards (I say, “1, 2, 3, Show me”). If I am unable to obtain a high success rate from my class on a component of the problem, I reteach that part and we practice it again and again. The slow-motion procedure has been transformative to my practice, as it allows me to incorporate principles of formative assessment whilst ensuring that students’ cognitive load stays at a manageable level.

Cut the fluff and teach the stuff

I believe it’s Anita Archer who coined the phrase, “Cut the fluff and teach the stuff”, but it is a concept that goes well with cognitive load theory. Early in my career I played music (with lyrics) during independent work, I put funny, but distracting images in my slides, and I told lots of entertaining, yet unrelated, anecdotes about life. I had students doing activities that were engaging, but took far too long, and I dedicated full weeks – months, even – to projects that were often only peripheral to the material that students needed to learn. Reading about how music, pointless PowerPoint animations and images, and attention-grabbing stimuli in the environment can clog up working memory has led me to be much more careful about how I regulate the flow of information in my classroom. Clean walls, crystal clear explanations, and breaking down large projects into time-bound segments, has allowed me to streamline my instruction so that students are not burdened by information that is extraneous to the learning goals.

Thank you for reading. Please sign up here or below for my March 2022 webinar on this very topic!


read more

The Private School Penalty – Education Rickshaw


For the past 9 years, I’ve worked in private independent and international schools, and before that, I trained and worked in public schools. As I’ve written before, the challenges that teachers experience in each of these contexts are vastly different. A pedagogy consisting largely of unstructured tasks with ill-defined goals, coupled with a laissez-faire approach to behavior management, might work for a class of 12-16 ivy league-bound Hermione Grangers, but is unlikely to work in your typical inner-city public school.

Most teachers who have crossed back and forth between public and private schools will acknowledge this reality. It’s the teachers who have only worked in private schools who don’t seem to get it. Some private school teachers (and non-teachers) will even blame the poor behaviors in public schools on public school teachers’ reliance on “coercive” behavior management strategies; If every teacher just took the time to build strong relationships with students, there wouldn’t be a behavior problem! Oh, how easy it is to dismiss behavior management strategies as “authoritarian” and based on a “dim view of human nature” when all it takes to get private school students to treat each other sensibly is to occasionally remind them to.

As I plan the next steps in my career, I’m realizing that my time in private schools – which was mostly by accident – has not endeared me to the public school leaders who conduct interviews. They are worried that my experience in these schools – many of which cost over $40,000 per year – has made me ill-prepared to be successful in their contexts. On the one hand, they are right. For example, you don’t necessarily have to do any of the following things to be a good teacher at the private schools I’ve worked at:

  1. Control students’ entry into the classroom
    • They’ll come in sensibly enough
  2. Teach students to walk in a straight line in the hallways, in silence
    • They’ll walk from class to class sensibly enough
  3. Teach students how to pass papers
    • They’ll make sure the papers get to where they need to go
  4. Model and practice how to sit on the carpet or at their seats
    • They already know how to do this
  5. Model and practice how to track the speaker
    • Their eyes automatically gravitate to whoever is talking
  6. Model and practice Cold Calling and Choral Response
    • Most students will think about the questions and raise their hands
  7. Reward students individually with points, tickets, or tokens
    • Most students will do what you want simply because you said so
  8. Use group or whole school rewards, such as raffle drawings and pizza parties
    • Most students tend to behave whether or not you try to hold them accountable to their peers
  9. Use a 5:1 praise-to-reprimand ratio
    • Most students do not require or rely on your praise as motivation
  10. Create a detention system
    • Most students do not need to be deterred from making bad choices
  11. Implement a “one student at a time” bathroom policy
    • Students can manage to use the bathroom without destroying the facilities or disappearing for hours
  12. Implement a hall pass policy
    • Students tend to like being in class and don’t seem to know where else they would go
  13. Create and use individual behavior plans/charts/tracking sheets
    • Nobody’s behavior ever gets this bad
  14. Make back-up plans in case your lesson completely falls apart
    • You can get away with trudging through a poorly executed lesson, or just asking students to work on stuff from other classes
  15. Regularly practice evacuating the room in the event that one of your students has a freak out
    • These students are excluded from most private schools

On the other hand, working in private schools has allowed me to hone my delivery and craft in an environment that is highly predictable and ripe for experimentation. Having courteous and forgiving students who provide helpful and sophisticated feedback about my performance has allowed me to trial new teaching methods – and fail and attempt again – without any risk of compromising their futures. While I’m confident I can dust off the old classroom management playbook should I take a job again in public schools, to the principals I’ve interviewed with, my resume is more of a liability than an asset. I am hoping that providing lots of concrete examples and descriptions of structured approaches to teaching and behavior management during interviews will ease some of their concerns.

Update: Shortly after I wrote up this post, I was offered a job at a public middle school. I’ve accepted.


read more

Special Edition – Education Rickshaw


read more

Hyper-Individualized Teaching – Education Rickshaw


Everyone has their ideas about what will fix education. One way to categorize these ideas is through the dichotomy of progressive and traditional approaches to education. Progressivism emphasizes setting the conditions to allow students to find their own way to subjects, and traditionalism emphasizes the importance of an expert bringing subjects that are of value for society – a tradition – to the student. It’s obviously a bit more complicated than this, as we discussed in 10 episodes of the podcast, Progressively Incorrect.

Another way to categorize the various solutions is whether they place an emphasis on the individual or the collective. On the one hand, we cannot deny that our classes are filled with 30 individuals who differ in significant ways. Everyone, apart from twins, is born with a unique genetic makeup and raised in separate environments from each other. It is therefore tempting to be drawn to reforms that hyper-individualize the curriculum based on difference. Learning styles and preferences, personalized learning, student voice and choice, and now UDL, are based on individualistic assumptions.

On the other hand, as most teachers don’t deal with single students but with groups of 30, it makes sense to focus on what students collectively have in common. We can be confident that variation is bound by the laws of statistics, and that we are all endowed with a similar cognitive architecture; working memory is extremely limited, practice is best spaced out over time, and so on. While cognitive scientists have yet to uncover all of the properties of the mind, patterns have emerged that allow us to identify core practices and principles that will likely help students learn. Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction is an example of an inventory of such core practices and principles. In the event that our formative assessments tell us that a student did not learn from these methods, we can use frameworks such as RTI to design and carry out interventions. We might look for ways to address the learning gap through small group instruction, or we might decide to make an accommodation or modification to the curriculum in accordance with the student’s IEP. This systematic approach to teaching and learning is how the best teachers, in my view, transform groups of seemingly dissimilar students into competent, self-efficacious classroom communities.

I recently attended a webinar on Universal Design for Learning (UDL), the latest take on the old idea that individuality, not commonality, should steer teachers’ decision-making. If we were an evidence-informed profession, we would dismiss UDL on the grounds that randomized controlled trials and meta-analyses have yet to demonstrate its effectiveness (Boysen, 2021). But we are not a profession that concerns itself with evidence, and UDL sounds promising because it proports to make learning accessible to everyone. I was hoping the webinar would deliver a compelling argument for how UDL improves upon the standard teach-assess-differentiate model that is the cornerstone of RTI and high quality instruction.

The presentation began with a slide displaying the pithy maxim that “variation is the rule, not the exception.” Fine. What does this mean for teaching phonics, 5 paragraph essays, or the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt? Sadly, the speaker basically refused to provide specific examples of how the maxim could be applied. We were told, instead, that students are so different from each other (they even change day to day, minute by minute) that it’s impossible to prescribe guidelines for teachers. We were also told to accept a number of terrible metaphors, including a pool party that forced attendees to wear a one-sized-fits-all bathing suit. If you wouldn’t plan a party like this, why would you teach like this? Again, there were no specific accommodations, modifications, or logistical considerations of a UDL-based system that could be shared. Are we permitted to allow partygoers to bring their own bathing suits, but forbid skinny dipping? Or is that not kosher in UDL?

Clearly, education would benefit from fewer of these nebulous presentations, and greater attention towards implementing the strategies that research in instructional design and cognitive science tells us will have the highest impact on learning. We can be confident that modeling and worked examples help embed information initially, and scaffolds ought to be gradually removed to allow students to practice independently; Formative assessment and feedback allow teachers to respond in real time to student misunderstandings; Providing students with opportunities to review in spaced out intervals helps students to further cement these new understandings.

The most interesting moment of the presentation, for me, was when one of the speakers cited the cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, as an important influence on his work. He even recommended we check out Willingham’s excellent book, Why Don’t Students Like School?. I wonder if the speaker has ever read what Willingham has to say on his presentation’s topic:

Of course, students will differ with regard to how they respond to and benefit from any single instructional strategy in a given lesson. There is no doubt that students have individual differences that are both situational and preferential. And there is no doubt that effective teachers address these differences using their own experience as a guide.

But when it comes to applying research to the classroom, it seems inadvisable to categorize students into more and more specialized groups on the basis of peripheral differences when education and cognitive sciences have made significant progress in describing the core competencies all students share. Teachers can make great strides in improving student achievement by leveraging this body of research and teaching to commonalities, not differences.

Willingham & Daniel, 2012


Boysen, G. A. (2021). Lessons (not) learned: The troubling similarities between learning styles and universal design for learning. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.

Willingham, D., & Daniel, D. (2012). Teaching to what students have in common. In Educational Leadership (Vol. 69, pp. 16–21).


read more