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How to use Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom

How to use Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom

4 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory is a concept that is becoming increasingly popular in education, with many teachers starting to use its principles in their classrooms. If you are not already familiar with this theory, here is a quick rundown of what it is, its benefits, and how to apply some of the key principles of Cognitive Load Theory in your classroom.

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

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

One famous psychological experiment confirmed our 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. 

If a teacher is presenting complex information (i.e. information that students have no previous experience with), they need to limit the amount of content available to ensure overload does not occur. If the material is easy to understand or has been encountered by students many times before, teachers should gradually increase the complexity of the material, in order to maximise learning and ensure that students don’t get complacent or bored.

If teachers can show students how to apply Cognitive Load Theory, by giving them strategies to avoid overloading, they will be better able to organise the learning material in a way that allows for information to be transferred to the long term store, which improves recall at a later date.z`09i

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

Using Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom

Use worked examples or completion tasks

Giving students worked examples, where they are given instructions or shown the steps needed to achieve a particular process, allows teachers to reduce the load placed on the working memory. Research has shown that when students are given problems, often all their focus is placed on solving it, leaving little room in the working memory for the steps they used to be remembered.

However, some research has suggested that completion tasks (where students are presented with partial solutions to complete) are more effective. This is because students often don’t interact with the material in worked examples, whereas in a completion task they are forced to do so.

Carefully select material

Teachers should look to present material in a way that facilitates learning. This can be achieved through an awareness of the Split Attention Effect. This is when information is not integrated because of an unnecessary strain placed on the working memory; for example, if diagrams and their explanatory text are not placed together, which reduces learning. Similarly, teachers should only present students with essential information, to ensure that non-essential information does not take up some of the working memory’s capacity, leaving less room for essential information to be stored.

Present information visually and orally

The working memory has two partially independent channels – one for handling visual information, and another for auditory information. Therefore, if teachers present new information using a mixture of visual and auditory materials, students will be less likely to experience cognitive overload, as the content will be spread between the channels. However, teachers should be mindful of research which showed that, whilst shorter pieces of audio-visual information were more effective than visual information alone, when the audio-visual content was long, the effects were reversed. That is because the long auditory text contained too much information to process.

Final thought

Cognitive Load Theory is about using the science of learning to determine the most effective strategies to facilitate the transferal of information from the working memory, where capacity is limited, to the long-term memory, where storage is unlimited.

The evidence in favour of integrating cognitive load theory in teaching is encouraging, and it seems that there are number of different strategies that can be used; be it worked examples, presenting information visually and orally or ensuring that only essential information is taught one step at a time.

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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