Recently I’ve become quite interested in the significance of cognitive load for learners and teachers.


So what is cognitive load?

In simple terms, ‘cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.’ (Wikipedia) All new learning requires use of our working memory, but unlike our long term memory, it can only hold up to 4-5 pieces of new information at one time. This is essential knowledge for educators and parents to be aware of as it has significant implications on the way we design, engineer and deliver new learning opportunities.


What’s the big deal?

Designing new learning opportunities necessitates an appreciation of cognitive load as getting the balance right can determine both the success rate and how much the learner will actually absorb. Too much new information could result in overload, eventually distorting the content and leading to lack of overall understanding. Imagine spending considerable time creating resources, slides and detailed questions only for your learners to be completely baffled and overwhelmed by the sheer overload of information. Useless right? Striking the right balance becomes a task that Goldilocks would relish; not too hard, not too easy, but just right.

To be an effective educator, I’m continually trying to find ways to make my material stick. I want my students to remember what I have taught them and be able to draw upon this knowledge or skills when called for. Part of this goal towards stickablity led me to cognitive load. I asked myself the question, ‘How can I ensure that my material is fully absorbed by learners?’. The universe conspired to help me arrive at an answer and led me to the idea of a reduction in cognitive load. Knowing when to reduce the cognitive load is important if leaners are to make adequate progress and grasp ideas of increasing complexity. Below are five ways to reduce cognitive load in the classroom.


5 ways to reduce cognitive load in the classroom


1. Ensure students have enough surface knowledge before moving onto any deep learning. For example, there’s little point teaching students Aristotelian conventions of Greek tragedy before they have a good understanding of the order in which events occur. Remember, first things first!


2. Get the level of challenge right! In well intentioned efforts to challenge our students, much of our content often results in cognitive overload for students! This is damaging and the effects can undo days, if not weeks of hard graft in building the self-esteem and confidence of learners. Remember the Goldilocks principle; not too hard, not too easy, just right.


3. Practice mindfulness in your classroom. No, this is not a gimmick. Please believe me. Before important writing tasks, I ask students to close their eyes or lay their heads on the desk. In a calming voice, I ask them to visualise writing successfully. After the visualisation exercise, students write down success criteria for the task. The atmosphere literally changes. You can feel a powerful sense of purpose and intent. Their mind is completely focused on the task. Such practice can be used for most subjects.

4. Teach literary interpretations as fact. I first came across this idea via the inspirational Andy Tharby and his insightful blog. If students already have something to hang on to, the teacher is in a position to introduce more challenging processes such as the wider significance of the interpretations or getting them to demonstrate the new knowledge by practising a particular skill such as analytical or discursive writing. For most of us it’s hard to learn practical skills and knowledge at the same time. Imagine trying to learn how to drive a car whilst the instructor simultaneously tries to teach you the Highway Code. A car crash is likely to ensue pretty soon.


5. This final technique is usable for teachers across different subjects. Be sensitive to how your learners feel. Cognition is not just happening as a result of direct response to the stimuli in your classroom. Students could be thinking of any number of things: what they will have for dinner, last night’s game or the traumatic fight their parents had that morning. As teachers, we must try to be empathic and intuitive to our students’ moods. Although we can’t know exactly what is going on in their lives, we know that a scowl often means unhappiness and a head hung low a sign of dejection. Read body language. Sometimes, just a smile or a kind word can ease the mental load for some students. I know for me that if I’ve had an argument with my wife or snapped at my kids in the morning, I can barely focus on the mindless task of driving let alone become a master of metaphor.