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.

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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!