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Cognitive Load

Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand (2017) is a paper published by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation.

Cognitive load is defined as the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. Working memory is understood to be the thinking skills required at a particular time to perform complex tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and learning. It is the memory system where small amounts of information are stored for a very short duration.

Cognitive load research then, is about developing instructional techniques that fit within the characteristics of working memory. It is about teachers understanding how working memory functions including knowing its limitations, so that learning can be maximised. If working memory is overloaded, there is a greater risk that the content being taught will not be understood by the learner, will be misinterpreted or confused, will not be effectively encoded in long-term memory, and that learning will be slowed down.

Cognitive load theory has produced a number of recommendations for teachers regarding instructional techniques that maximise the effectiveness of the working memory:

The worked example effect

This is the understanding that the working memory of the novice student can become overloaded and they may not recognise and remember the rule to quickly solve the same problem again. To facilitate success the teacher provides the students with a problem that has already been solved with every step fully explained and clearly shown.

The redundancy effect

This is the understanding that students do not learn effectively when their limited working memory is directed to unnecessary or redundant information. An example is a PowerPoint presentation in which the presenter reads the text presented on the screen. Requiring learners to process redundant information inhibits learning because it overloads working memory.

The split attention effect

This is the understanding that irrelevant information interferes with learning such as when learners are required to process two or more sources of information simultaneously in order to understand the material. For example, when a diagram is used to explain a concept but it cannot be understood without referring to a separate piece of explanatory text.

The modality effect

This is the understanding that working memory can be subdivided into auditory and visual streams so that presenting information using both auditory and visual working memory can increase working memory capacity. For example, when using a diagram and text to explain a concept, the written text can be communicated in spoken form to facilitate more effective learning.

Cognitive load theory is interesting and important. It is about understanding how we learn best, and how to maximise teacher effectiveness to engage learners and. improve student outcomes.