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Forgetting isn't the problem –cognitive overload is

Forgetting isn’t the problem – Cognitive overload is

4 min read
  • The science of learning

A common misconception in education is that the biggest obstacle to academic success is forgetting information. While students (and their teachers) may find it frustrating to forget something they thought they had learned, it’s actually a natural part of the learning process.

One of the biggest challenges lies in ensuring that students learn in the first place.

Why do we forget?

In 1885, German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered one of the longest and most enduring findings in cognitive psychology: the “Spacing Effect”, or the notion that humans tend to forget large amounts of information if they only learn something once.

But why does this happen to learners? Because forgetting allows the brain to sort important from trivial information, which is an integral part of the learning process. Indeed, a comprehensive literature review found that the ability to retrieve and generate relevant information is made possible by inhibiting, and thus forgetting, unwanted information.

Luckily, learners can control the information that their brain retains or discards through Spacing. When a student periodically reviews and retrieves that information, it reinforces their learning, so that it is consolidated into their long-term memory. At the same time, information that their do not recall will fade from the learner’s memory.

Learning is the priority

Now that we know that forgetting is a key part of learning, our priority should be to boost learning rather than retention in order to maximise students’ academic achievements. In other words, we must accept that covering a piece of information in the classroom isn’t a guarantee that students will actually learn it. This means that we need to find ways to minimise one of the greatest barriers to student learning: cognitive overload.

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load Theory highlights how working memory has a limited capacity. Therefore, if students are presented with too many things at once, the brain suffers from something known as overload. This can slow down or even stop learning, because the brain can no longer process all the information being presented.

A famous psychological experiment confirmed the working memory’s limited capacity, showing that when participants were presented with a series of numbers one at a time on a screen, they could only accurately recall a sequence of 7 +/- 2 items. More recent research suggests that this number may be even lower.

What are the consequences of cognitive overload?

There are multiple ways cognitive overload can hinder learning. Here are the most notable examples:

  1. The Redundancy Effect – When a student’s working memory becomes clogged up by excess information, they may remember the irrelevant information and forget what they actually need to know. This means that the filtering process that happens when we forget becomes prone to error, ultimately inhibiting learning (and retention).
  2. Lower motivation – Experiencing cognitive overload can be frustrating and demotivating for students. This can lead to decreased motivation to engage in learning activities.
  3. Decreased self-efficacy – Research has shown a strong link between high cognitive load and low academic self-efficacy. This is because a heavy cognitive load overwhelms students, making them feel incapable of effectively managing their academic workload. This in turn can have a detrimental effect on their self-efficacy.
Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

How can you help your students overcome cognitive overload?

As you can see, it is crucial that your teaching approach is curated to reduce cognitive overload so that students’ learning can be facilitated. The following strategies can help you achieve this…

1. Don’t present too much information at once

It is important for students to receive all the necessary information for them to understand a certain concept or idea. However, this does not mean that it has to be all presented at once, as this is the easiest way for students to experience cognitive overload.

When teaching a new topic, try to present the most important information first and then slowly introduce supplementary content. This ensures that students understand certain concepts before introducing others, allowing them to connect ideas better. Providing a learning structure further enables students to build on previously learned knowledge so that new concepts can be learned faster.

2. Break down long tasks with shorter deadlines

When a task takes too long to complete, students may feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to start or how to tackle the task. This may result in cognitive overload, slowing down the learning process.

If a task is going to take a long time, 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.

As a bonus, setting frequent but small deadlines has been found to help students manage their time and energy over the course of the academic year, as well as improve overall grades.

3. Reduce the Split-Attention Effect

When students receive information alternatively from two or more sources, it can place a burden on working memory as focus is spread too thinly. This can subsequently lead to cognitive overload.

To avoid this, you can combine your formats, for example by using integrated diagrams that present both text and images in one place. This allows your students to focus all their attention on one thing, leading to better information intake. Research suggests that when the text is directly within a diagram, students aren’t forced to split their attention between multiple sources.

Final thoughts

There is nothing to forget if nothing is learned. We must therefore prioritise student learning in the first place. In order for our students to learn effectively, we need to prevent them from experiencing cognitive overload. Implementing the strategies discussed above will help you achieve this and may even expand students’ retention capacity.