Cognitive Load Theory is one of the most interesting psychological theories that falls under the umbrella of cognitive science. Part of its popularity is that it matches many of our personal experiences, that is that when we are presented with too much information it is both stressful and a barrier to learning.
There are many different reasons as to why students may experience a cognitive overload. This blog looks at four such reasons, as well as exploring what we can do to help them manage this process.
What is Cognitive Load Theory?
Cognitive Load Theory is built on the simple belief that working memory is limited. In order to remember information for long periods of time, we need to transfer information from our working memory, to our long-term memory. Unfortunately, a bottleneck often occurs and this transfer doesn’t always take place. This leads to forgetting, and generally inefficient and ineffective learning.
Research in cognitive science suggests that the magical number 7, plus or minus 2 is the maximum number of items that the average human can hold in their short-term memory. Some researchers have even put this number at a smaller figure. Behaviours associated with cognitive overload may include frustration, distracted behaviour and increased stress in the classroom.
When does cognitive overload happen (and how to overcome it)?
Students may experience cognitive overload in the classroom for several reasons. By being aware of some of them, it helps us best support students in their learning. Here are four of these reasons:
1. The task is taking too long
When a task is taking too long to complete, students may not fully engage with it. Students may start feeling overwhelmed and unsure of where to start or how to tackle the task. This may result in cognitive overload, slowing down the learning process.
Strategy: Break down long tasks with shorter deadlines
If a task will take a long time for students to complete, it can be very helpful to break it down into shorter deadlines. Setting smaller goals is a great way to ensure that students have a clearer direction and don’t feel overwhelmed.
2. The task is too difficult
When a task seems difficult and complex, students may feel intimidated. This can result in them taking little action to complete the task, because students may experience cognitive overload from the beginning or may be afraid to fail.
It is important to ensure that the task is challenging enough to engage students cognitively, however not so difficult that it demotivates students to begin completing it.
Strategy: Break down difficult tasks into smaller chunks
One strategy you can use when a task seems too difficult is breaking it down into smaller chunks. Tackling one very difficult task may be less manageable than tackling a handful of easier tasks. Asking students to make a detailed plan made up of smaller sub-tasks may help them feel more in control of the task and may reduce chances of cognitive overload.
3. There are too many choices
When there are too many ways a student can complete a task, students may feel unsure of the best way to go about it. Too many choices can leave students feeling overwhelmed and result in cognitive overload.
Strategy: Highlight a clear path
Making sure to give students a clear plan for completing a task. This is probably even more important for novice learners, who do not have the schemas to draw on due to their lack of experience. As students become more expert in a domain, there is scope for them to engage in more independent learning, as we can reduce the scaffolded support they need.
4. There is too much information presented at once
It is important for students to receive all of the necessary information for them to understand a certain concept or idea. However, this does not mean that it all has to be presented to them at once.
Trying to understand and retain too much information in one go is the easiest way to experience cognitive overload. Students will be unable to remember essential information, and will not be making the most out of their learning.
Strategy: Prioritise presenting the most important information
Presenting only the most important information ensures that students do not experience cognitive overload by trying to process too much in one go – which is also known as the Redundancy Effect.
This is important because it ensures that students understand certain concepts before introducing others, which will allow them to connect ideas better. Providing a learning structure that allows students to build on previously-learned knowledge to enhance learning later on may not only improve memory, but also allows students to understand new concepts and ideas faster.
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There are undoubtedly other reasons why students experience cognitive overload. And there are a plethora of other strategies that could help. Hopefully, some of the ones listed above give good food for thought on how we go about starting to help our students not experience cognitive overload.
Thankfully, the growing research into Cognitive Load Theory, cognitive overload and ways to overcome it now gives us the best chance to avoid those negative consequences – and help students learn in the most effective way.