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Cognitive Load Theory in practice

Cognitive Load Theory in practice: Worked examples & Completion tasks

5 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Have you heard of Cognitive Load Theory? If you have, we’re not surprised, since this theory is fast becoming one of the most important theories in education. If you haven’t, don’t worry – we’ve got loads of information and resources to get you up to scratch, including a recap of Cognitive Load Theory.

There are several really useful applications of Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom. For example, you may already have read our blogs on The Redundancy Effect, The Split Attention Effect, and The Transient Information Effect.

Cognitive Load Theory has also highlighted useful strategies such as worked examples and completion tasks. In this blog, we’re going to explore both, so read on to learn more about…

  • Cognitive Load Theory: A quick recap
  • What worked examples and completion tasks are
  • The psychology behind worked examples and completion tasks
  • Tips to using worked examples and completion tasks in the classroom

A recap of Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory emphasises the limited capacity of working memory. It states that processing too much information at once can lead to a cognitive overload in working memory. This overload can slow down and hinder the learning process as it has a negative impact on the transfer of information from working memory to long-term memory.

Using worked examples and completion tasks are two effective strategies that assist students in avoiding cognitive overload and adopting a more focused approach to learning.

What are worked examples?

Worked examples make use of a strategy known as scaffolding. Similar to the scaffolding used in construction, this consists of teachers using then gradually removing learning support to help students transition into independent learners. 

In the case of worked examples, this means giving a step-by-step demonstration of how to complete a task or solve a problem, with each stage thoroughly explained. This gives students the strategies they need to complete similar tasks and problems that involve the same steps. So, worked examples are really the first stage of scaffolding, when the most teacher support is provided. This is great for helping novice learners or beginners with a particular concept or topic.

How do worked examples help?

This research review examined research that looked at the effectiveness of worked examples. It found that over the years, lots of research conducted in laboratories has suggested that worked examples enhance student learning. Importantly, the review also found that more recent research conducted in real life classrooms has supported the effectiveness of worked examples too. 

Research suggests that when students are given problems, often all their focus is placed on solving it, leaving little room in the working memory to remember the steps they used. Worked examples reduce this burden of information by providing the information that students need to know.

This means that while students are getting to grips with a topic, they don’t have to hold all of the information in their working memory at one time, thereby reducing cognitive load, and allowing them to transfer key information into their long-term memory. 

For example, if you were going to do a worked examples around the use of apostrophes for young students, it may look like this:

The use of apostrophes for young students

And likewise, if we were teaching French to older students, a worked example may look like this:

Teaching French to older students

This is so important that Barak Rosenshine made providing models his fourth Principle of Instruction. As he argues, if you want students to actively engage with their learning and develop an important skill, you need to show them how to do it. Worked examples help students develop a clearer understanding of what’s being asked of them, and they free up working memory space, enabling students to focus more on the task at hand.

Using worked examples in the classroom

So, worked examples are a great way to help your students learn effectively and efficiently. Here are a few practical tips for when using worked examples in your classroom:

  • Clearly and thoroughly explain each step of the worked example.
  • Consider giving students copies of worked examples, rather than leaving it up on a whiteboard, so that students don’t have to switch their attention back and forth (which could lead to The Split Attention Effect).
  • Encourage students to explain the steps of a worked example back to you, making use of the Protégé Effect.
  • When students are confident with worked examples, move on to giving them completion tasks.
  • If adopting a mastery learning approach, where students must demonstrate a high level of understanding before moving on to a new topic, returning back to worked examples may be a good way of helping students who don’t initially achieve “mastery”.

But how can you bridge the level of difficulty as students become more confident, but aren’t quite able enough to do the task independently? That’s where completion tasks come in…

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

What are completion tasks?

While worked examples involve a step-by-step demonstration of how to solve a problem, with each step thoroughly explained, completion tasks are the next level up. They show a worked example of a concept, but one that is only partially completed, and which has gaps for students to fill in. These are a great way to advance the knowledge of students who are nearly experts in a particular topic, but still need a little bit of help and guidance.

Using completion tasks in the classroom

So, completion tasks can be very handy for advancing students’ knowledge. In fact, Rosenshine’s 8thPrinciple of Instruction is all about providing scaffolding, and gradually removing support to help students become successful learners.

You could vary worked examples and completion tasks and adjust them to suit different students; they may start with different levels of knowledge, or develop understanding of the topic at different rates, so it may be beneficial to vary the level of challenge.

Why do completion tasks help?

Similarly to worked examples, completion tasks reduce the burden of information in working memory by providing some information for students. As students become more familiar with a given topic, they may have transferred some topic information into their long-term memory, but not all of it. By providing some key information, completion tasks help students to avoid cognitive overload while they’re still learning, alongside testing their knowledge. Teachers can use the gaps to direct students to areas they need to practice on and where they should focus their thinking. Some research suggests that completion tasks are more effective than worked examples for some students, because it prompts them to engage with the material more actively.

Final thoughts

Utilising worked examples and completion tasks are effective strategies to manage cognitive load in your classroom and enhance your students’ learning experience. Worked examples are especially beneficial for novice learners, providing them with valuable guidance in a specific subject. Similarly, completion tasks are valuable for advancing the learning of students who are acquiring knowledge and skills in a particular topic but still require some support.

By incorporating these techniques, you can create an optimal learning environment that promotes independent thinking and fosters academic growth.

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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