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How can teachers measure cognitive load in the classroom?

How can teachers measure cognitive load in the classroom?

4 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory

How do you figure out your students’ cognitive capacity, so you can avoid overloading it? Can it even be measured?

At the core of this question lies Cognitive Load Theory, which builds on how students assimilate and retain information. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the human brain and its capacity for knowledge absorption.

Yet, it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Cognitive load capacity is diverse. Whilst some can process large amounts of information at once, others may struggle with the same amount, leading them into cognitive overload.

So, how can you reliably measure cognitive load? Read on to learn more about

  • Cognitive Load Theory
  • How researchers measure cognitive load
  • The limitations of this research
  • What that means in the classroom

Cognitive Load Theory: A quick reminder

Cognitive load refers to the mental effort and resources necessary to process information effectively. Our working memory, which has limited capacity and can only manage a certain amount of information at one time, steps in to act as temporary storage and processing system during this process.

When this capacity is exceeded, learning slows down significantly and can even stop – known as a state of cognitive overload. This makes managing your students’ cognitive load a crucial part of their learning experience. For some tips to do so, check out our blog about 4 ways to overcome cognitive overload.

So, can we reliably measure Cognitive Load?

How researchers measure cognitive load

The big question at hand is: how do you know your students’ cognitive load capacity? Some researchers suggest that it can be observed through some physical reactions, including:

  • Eye movements – Research found that rapid and prolonged eye movement was indicative of how much information people are processing, as faster eye movement was linked to higher cognitive load.
  • Changes in heart rate – A higher heart rate was linked to greater cognitive processing, suggestive of a larger cognitive load.
  • Changes in brain activity – In one piece of research, participants with high cognitive load showed an increase of activity in areas of the brain involved in memory processing (measured through neuroimaging techniques).

However, research suggests that the most effective way to measure cognitive load is to use more than one method of measurement, and to combine self-reported and more objective measures. By using these together, researchers can find more consistent and efficient results.

The limitations of measuring cognitive load

Some researchers however have expressed scepticism about these measurement methods. They raise concerns regarding the various factors that can influence these measurements, such as individual differences in cognitive ability or the novelty of the task, which can introduce variability and make results less consistent.

For example, some research found conflicting results when they asked students to complete a task and measured their cognitive load. You would expect the highest performing students to have the lowest cognitive load, as it has an adverse effect on learning – however, they found the opposite, suggesting that cognitive load measurement method may lack consistency and reliability.

Subjective measures are also prone to be affected by biases, while physiological measures could be influenced by factors like physical health and emotional state. By delving deeper into these considerations, you can begin to see how the answer to question may not be as definitive as a “yes” or “no”.

Maximise your students’ learning efficiency with Cognitive Load Theory training for your school staff.

What does this mean for teachers and Cognitive Load in the classroom?

Whether these types of measurements of cognitive load are accurate or not is probably largely irrelevant in the classroom. Let’s face it: eye-tracking software and heartrate monitors aren’t exactly staple features of the day-to-day classroom. So, where does this leave measuring cognitive load on a practical level?

The truth is that, arguably, there isn’t a way to accurately do so. We have to accept that in a class of 30 students, there will be a range of capacities that we are unlikely to accurately measure. However, just because we can’t measure it, doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

Cognitive Load Theory is all about optimising load, not just minimising it. Perhaps the best we can do is a combination of the following:

Final thoughts

So, where does this leave us? Cognitive Load Theory is a theory that all teachers would benefit from knowing. And over recent years, huge strides have been made in the research (although there is still more to be explored when it comes to Cognitive Load Theory).

From a research perspective, we are getting nearer to knowing how best to measure it. From a practical point of view in the classroom, we probably aren’t. And maybe that is okay.

To help your whole school develop practical, evidence-informed strategies, enquire about our Cognitive Load Theory Teacher CPD workshops.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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