What role do emotions play in Cognitive Load Theory?

We recently came across a groundbreaking review on Cognitive Load Theory – a widely recognised framework in education and the focus of much research in recent decades.

So, what sets this review apart? Its focus on the relationship between cognitive load and emotions, offering a new perspective on the impact that how we feel has on how much we learn.

Let’s dive into the findings, and their implications for your classroom.

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A refresher on Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory emphasises the limited capacity of working memory, as opposed to the near-unlimited capacity of long-term memory. It states that processing too much information at once can lead to a cognitive overload in working memory. This can hinder learning, because the brain can no longer process all the information it is encountering.


What is the link between Cognitive Load Theory and emotions?

Although a substantial amount of research has been conducted on Cognitive Load Theory, there is a notable gap in our understanding of the role that emotions play in this concept. To fill this gap, a team of researchers recently conducted a systematic review. They argued there must be a link between human emotion and cognition, as emotional regions of the brain have been found to be involved in cognitive processing.

Indeed, they found a comprehensive study that supported this idea. The study was conducted in the context of medical education and manipulated participants’ emotions by providing two different outcomes of simulation on a patient. In one group, the patient experienced a cardiac arrest and died, while in the other group, the patient was transferred to another service and lived. Students in the group where the patient died reported more negative emotions, such as stress and nervousness, and crucially experienced higher cognitive load and lower learning outcomes in a similar simulation three months later, compared to students in the group where the patient lived.

Based on current evidence, albeit limited, it can be concluded that emotions have an impact on learning by altering cognitive load. However, the question remains: what is the specific mechanism behind this process?

4 ways emotions can affect cognitive load

After reviewing numerous studies, the researchers theorised that the mechanism linking emotions and cognitive load occurred in four distinct ways. Let’s take a look at these together…

  1. Emotion as a source of extraneous cognitive load

Emotions need to be processed. As a result, they create demands on our cognitive resources, causing an extraneous cognitive load (i.e., that does not contribute to the learning goal) occupying precious space in our working memory.

For example, if a student is feeling stressed because of the pressure to perform well, their working memory may fill with thoughts about their situation and their performance – effectively reducing the number of resources available to perform the task at hand or absorbing new information. This, unfortunately, decreases their learning outcomes.

  1. Emotion as a factor affecting memory

When we feel positive emotions such as happiness, this means that our needs are met and that we can focus on more things. Indeed, research has shown that positive emotions lead to outcomes that can be interpreted as indicators of more available working memory, such as increased creativity and pro-social behaviour.

On the other hand, negative emotions serve as a signal that specific goals and needs are yet to be met, mobilising our cognitive resources to meet them as a result. This is supported by studies indicating that negative emotions result in reduced creativity and learning outcomes, which are indications of a decrease in available working memory.

Essentially, we can think of emotions as the cue for broadening or narrowing available cognitive resources. In a nutshell, a student feeling negative emotions will have less memory to spare.

  1. Emotion as intrinsic cognitive load

But it’s not just the emotions themselves that impact our working memory; the effort we need to exert to regulate these emotions does as well, which increases our intrinsic cognitive load.

For example, the medical students we mentioned earlier are required to learn how to communicate bad news to patients and regularly cope with very difficult situations. In such cases, regulating emotions is an integral part of the learning process, ultimately adding to the overall cognitive load of a learning task.

This is why, in the study, the students experienced heightened negative emotions, which resulted in greater cognitive load and lower learning outcomes on the performance task.

  1. Emotion affecting motivation to increase cognitive effort

The final perspective of the relation between emotion and cognitive load focuses on the effect emotions have on motivation. Meaning, it is suggested that positive emotion can foster motivation, which will in turn increase learning.

For instance, features that help induce positive emotion such as warm colours or round shapes may make the learning environment more motivationally pleasing, leading to an increased willingness to expend cognitive resources in the learning process.

Final thoughts

This review is a rare and precious find, integrating comprehensive findings from neuroscience, educational psychology, cognitive psychology and more to identify the link between emotions and Cognitive Load Theory.

A breakthrough like this one can help inform classroom practice to design and foster more suitable learning environments, where we can help students avoid experiencing cognitive overload. While the basis of these findings (i.e., negative emotions are poorly conducive to learning) may sound intuitive, understanding the mechanisms at play in such detail represents a significant step forward in education.


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