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Reducing cognitive load

Cognitive load theory describes how learning can be impeded when the capacity of working memory is overloaded. Watch Catherine Elliott explain more.
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Cognitive load theory describes how learning can be impeded when the capacity of working memory is overloaded. Our working memory, the short term store for information that we can use to fulfil a task, can only hold a certain amount of information at any one time. And when this limit is exceeded, we can feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and learning is no longer effective. Cognitive load refers to the amount of processing activity that the working memory has to do when fulfilling a task. According to the theory, there are three types of cognitive load. Intrinsic cognitive load, which is the inherent difficulty of the material being learned. And a students prior knowledge of the topic will influence this.
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Extraneous cognitive load relates to the way that material is presented to the student, and which doesn’t contribute to learning. Germane cognitive load is the thinking and the processes that happen to help move knowledge into long term memory. As a teacher, you have most influence over the amount of extraneous cognitive loads in an activity. Any students with SEND, who have poor working memory, will hold far less information than their peers. And this contributes to one of the main barriers to their learning– the difficulty they have in acquiring and retaining new knowledge and concepts. Let us consider the example of an instruction from the last step.
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Log on and open the presentation we were working on last week, and add in suitable images. You can find some in the shared folder, or search the internet. Some learners may not get past logging on, as they’re trying to hold all of the instructions in their working memory, whilst also trying to remember their user name, their password, and which keys to press. So by reducing cognitive loads in our lessons, you can minimise the effect of poor working memory on the retention of information. Introduce new content in smaller chunks, and practise what is learned before moving on. This will also help students with poor concentration. Review previous learning at regular intervals. Present new information using familiar contexts where possible.
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For example, we can talk about the program and concept selection in terms of what you need if it rains. Provide clear models and complete examples, initially, before removing steps or components. So provide working code to investigate, or model the features of a good animation. Teach the key skills in advance, and explicitly, so they are recalled easily. If you’re teaching about a new feature or a piece of software, but your students are struggling to log on or use a keyboard effectively, then the cognitive load will be too great. Classroom routines will help with this. Also teach key vocabulary before presenting a new topic. You could send a list of words home for students to practise.
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Or display images and keywords around the classroom to refer to in lessons. Don’t overload teaching resources with too much content. So avoid adding too much text to a presentation slide that you’re going to talk through. A few images or keywords will be much more effective. Next week, you’ll learn about more specific computing approaches that will help you reduce cognitive load when teaching new concepts. So how will you reduce cognitive load in your classroom, using these strategies when teaching your next topic? What strategies have you found useful to teach key skills and vocabulary? Share your thoughts and ideas with your fellow learners in the comments section.

Cognitive load theory was developed in the 1980s by John Sweller and describes how learning can be impeded when the capacity of working memory is overloaded (Sweller, J. (1988) Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning.).

Our working memory, the short-term store for information that we use to fulfil a task, can only hold a certain amount of information at any one time. When this limit is exceeded, we can feel overwhelmed and frustrated, and learning is no longer effective. ‘Cognitive load’ refers to the amount of processing activity that the working memory has to do when fulfilling a task.

Types of cognitive load

According to the theory, there are three types of cognitive load:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load: The inherent difficulty of material being learnt. A learner’s prior knowledge of the topic will influence this.
  • Extraneous cognitive load: The way that material is presented to the learner; it doesn’t contribute to learning.
  • Germane cognitive load: The thinking and processes that take place to help move knowledge into long-term memory.

A brain filling up with three types of cognitive load. There are three arrows pointing to the brain, one is labelled 'Intrinsic', another is labelled 'Extraneous', and the final one is labelled 'Germane'.

As a teacher, you have the most influence over the amount of extraneous cognitive load in an activity.

Learners who have working memory difficulties may retain far less information than their peers, which can be a barrier to learning.

Consider the example of the instruction from the last step:

“Log on and open the presentation that you were working on last week, and add in suitable images. You can find some in the shared folder, or search for something relevant on the internet.”

Some learners may not get past logging on, as they are trying to hold all of the instructions in their working memory, while also trying to remember their username and password, and which keys to press.

By reducing cognitive load in your lessons, you can minimise the effect of working memory difficulties on the retention of information.

Reducing cognitive load in the classroom

  1. Introduce new content in smaller chunks, and practise what has been learnt before moving on. This can also help learners with concentration difficulties. Review previous learning at regular intervals.

    A box showing a larger complex idea, containing many different pieces of content

    A box showing a larger complex idea, containing many different pieces of content that have been separated into individual boxes

    A box showing a larger complex idea, with individual chunks of information shown in separate boxes, all spread out.

    Chunks of information shown as part of a larger complex idea. These chunks are structured together, in alphabetical order.

  2. Present new information using familiar contexts where possible. For example, you could talk about forever loops using the example of a traffic light, or selection in terms of what you need if it rains.

    A robot holding sunglasses and umbrella. To the left there is sunshine and the robot holds the sunglasses. To the right there is rain and the robot holds the umbrella. Along the bottom it reads 'if it rains, then take umbrella, else wear sunglasses'.

  3. At first, provide clear models and complete examples, before you remove steps or components. For example, provide working code to investigate, or model the features of a good animation.

    Sample of code showing IF image of rain clouds, THEN image of umbrella, ELSE image of sunglasses.

  4. Teach key skills explicitly in advance so that they can be recalled more easily. For example, we teach the times tables to help learners carry out more complex calculations; if you are teaching a new feature of a piece of software, but the learners find it difficult to log on, use a keyboard effectively, or know where to open and save work, then the cognitive load will be too great. Classroom routines can help with this.
  5. Teach key vocabulary before presenting a new topic. You could give learners a list of words to take home to practise, or you could provide a word list or keyword classroom display with image or audio support for learners to refer to in lessons.

    Example of a word list. The title at the of the page is 'Computer parts'. Below this are images of a monitor, mouse, and keyboard, each labelled with what they are.

  6. Don’t overload teaching resources with content. For example, avoid adding too much text to a presentation slide that you are going to talk through; a few images or key words will be more effective. You will learn about the power of using visuals and other media later this week.

    Animation of a Scratch project showing a rabbit hopping through a field.

In the second week of this course, you will learn about some more specific computing approaches that will help to reduce cognitive load when learning new concepts.

Discussion

In the comments, discuss your answers to the following questions:

  • When teaching your next topic, how will you use one of the strategies above to reduce cognitive load?
  • What strategies have you found useful to teach key skills and vocabulary, such as keyboard skills?
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Creating an Inclusive Classroom: Approaches to Supporting Learners with SEND in Computing

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