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The impact of group work on cognitive load

The impact of group work on cognitive load

5 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Group work is a staple part of any classroom. Not only has some research highlighted its potential benefits on improving students’ communication skills, academic performance, and confidence, but 97% of students report that working in a group helped improve their learning and collaborative skills in some way.

Learning collaboratively, especially when tackling a new or complex task allows students to divide the workload amongst themselves. By dividing the task so each student tackles a smaller chunk on their own, students can make steady progress as a seemingly impossible task is now more manageable. 

However, is the reason why group work so effective have anything to do with overcoming the limitations of our working memory being quite small? Let’s take a closer look…

The issue with working memory

The issue with working memory is that it’s very small, and so it can only store a limited amount of information at a time. As a result, if students are presented with a complex task or too much information at one time, they experience a cognitive overload. This is when the learning process either slows down or completely shuts down as the brain can’t process all this new information at one time.

However, for learning to take place, information from a student’s working memory needs to be transferred to the unlimited capacity of their long-term memory. Unfortunately, the small capacity of the working memory means that there is a bottleneck between the two – so not all the information a student gets presented with will be remembered. For educators to enhance students’ learning and consequently their academic performance, finding effective strategies to overcome the limitations of working memory is vital.

The impact of group work on cognitive load

Although the majority of research into cognitive load theory looks at individual learning, recent research suggests that group work is one strategy teachers can use to aid the memory transfer between working memory and long-term memory. This is due to the idea of collective memory, or in the case of working memory, more specifically referred to as the “Collective Working Memory Effect”.

The Collective Working Memory Effect is when the cognitive load of a task is shared between the members of a group. This occurs through sharing perspectives, thought processes, and communicating with one another. Consequently, the likelihood of a student experiencing a cognitive overload is greatly reduced, because learning is now a shared responsibility. Research shows that people recall more information when working collectively as a group compared to when working independently.

What the research says

Research has highlighted some of the potential benefits of collaborative learning on cognitive load. In one study, the researchers gave high school students a problem-solving task to complete either on their own or in a group of 3. The students who were to complete the task on their own were given all the necessary information, whilst the students who worked as part of a group were each given a third of the information and had to put the pieces together to figure out a solution. Each student’s recall and ability to apply what they learnt to different scenarios was then measured. The key findings from the study are as follows:

  • Students who completed the task independently had better memory recall;
  • Students who worked collaboratively were more effective at applying their understanding to different situations and used less mental effort when doing so;
  • Group work is more effective for learning when completing complex tasks whereas working independently is more effective for simple tasks.

In another study, students had to solve maths problems and worked examples either independently or in a group. The researchers found that group work enhanced learning when students had to complete a problem-solving task, but when presented with worked examples, learning independently was more effective. This is because students are more likely to experiment with different techniques and ask questions when tackling a problem-solving task if they’re working in a group.

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

How to effectively implement group work into the classroom

It’s not enough to use group work in the classroom, you have to know how to implement it effectively. Here are 5 ways you can do that:

Ensure the pros outweighs the cons

As detailed above, group work has the potential to enhance learning. However, there is a cost as well. The load placed on students having to remember what each person knows and interact with them may well be significant. For group work to be effective, the benefit of doing so has to outweigh the extra load that this may place.

Monitor progress

This enables you to see if students are doing what they’re supposed to be doing and are engaging with the task effectively. It also allows you to clarify any misunderstandings students may have about the task.

Group size

Research suggests that the optimum size of a group is either four or five members, as this encourages more group productivity.

Constructive feedback

The Sutton Trust report that if it is done right, feedback can be one of the most effective ways to help a student improve their learning.

Group assignment

The groups that perform better academically are those that are assigned by teachers. This is because groups are created based off of academic ability and students’ attributes rather than by convenience.

Final thoughts

There is no doubt that group work can be an effective learning tool that enables students to engage with a topic more effectively. By diffusing the responsibility of a task amongst several students, students can share their cognitive load, enhancing information transfer to long-term memory as a result.

However, the benefits of group work are dependent on whether it is utilised correctly. The potential for unequal workloads, laziness, and avoiding the task means that some students may still experience a cognitive overload if they’re doing all the work.

For tips on how to ensure this doesn’t happen, check out our blog on how to use group work effectively.

For more information about working memory, check out our CPD workshop about Cognitive Load Theory on the InnerDrive Online Academy, or our in-person Cognitive Load Theory CPD course.

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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