How you choose to present new information can either inhibit or maximise your students’ learning, due to how they process the content in their working memory. This is where cognitive load theory can play a crucial role. Essentially, this simple theory can result in a number of different strategies that can help maximise your students learning.
But what is cognitive load? And how can we maximise it? We’ve read the latest and best research to see which practical strategies you may want to consider using…
What is Cognitive Load?
Cognitive Load Theory proposes that the brain can only hold a limited amount of information in working memory – so, your students need as much space as possible for processing what you want them to learn.
New information is naturally complex, meaning that it carries “intrinsic load”. This type of cognitive load is necessary for students to learn. However, when they have to process irrelevant material as well as what is necessary, they can experience cognitive overload.
This hinders the learning process, because when the working memory is overloaded, important details are more easily forgotten. As a result, instead of essential information transferring into your students’ long-term memory, irrelevant material may take its place – there may not even be any transfer at all.
How to reduce Cognitive Load when presenting new material
As you can see, it is crucial that your teaching resources are designed to facilitate your students’ learning. So, here are four approaches to avoid cognitively overloading your students when presenting new information…
- Only use one type of format unless necessary
When it comes to learning, less is more!
One helpful approach is incorporating diagrams in your teaching, because they can represent a lot of information in a simple way. Once you’ve initially explained what a diagram means, it becomes self-explanatory.
Another thing to consider is whether you need to be reading text from new teaching material out loud when students are reading along in their head. Although this may seem like an effective way to engage them, research has shown that students’ comprehension of the text decreases when they hear as well as read it.
This is particularly important for language lessons. Reading in another language already carries a lot of cognitive load for students – having to process both audio and written versions of the language can easily lead to cognitive overload.
- Slides should complement your points, not duplicate them
John Sweller, the researcher most associated with Cognitive Load Theory, once said that “the use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched”. Although many may feel that they may not want to completely get rid of powerpoint presentation, his statement does raise some interesting questions. Often, powerpoint slides can take a lot of time to produce with the excessive animations competing for student attention.
Research has shown that when you present students with a diagram and written text, you can actually inhibit their learning by repeating the text out loud. Essentially, PowerPoints should be the supporting act, not the main character. So, cut down the text on your slides and elaborate it in verbal explanations. This can help your students focus on what you actually want them to learn and avoid cognitive overload.
- Introduce new formats over time
Now, the risk of cognitive overload does not mean that you can only use one type of format to teach your lessons. The key is to avoid using multiple formats at the same time.
Research has demonstrated that when learners were given an audio version of information first then a visual version, they outperformed learners that were only given one format. Here, instead of triggering cognitive overload, the second medium helped students process information in a different way and consolidate what they had learned.
So, when using multiple formats to teach your students is appropriate, stagger each one’s introduction to avoid overwhelming your student and improve their learning.
- Break up long pieces of information
You may use textbooks in your lessons to support learning, but lengthy passages of text can carry too much cognitive load.
So, to avoid the cognitive overload this can create, break up long passages into manageable parts so that students can process each section better. Then, you can regularly review this information with your students to check their understanding and slowly consolidate their knowledge of the whole topic.
It is difficult to design new teaching material according to the limitations in your students’ working memory, but it is crucial to their learning. Fortunately, there are practical ways to combat this so that students feel confident keeping up with you when you teach.