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Introducing new knowledge and ideas to pupils: Principles from cognitive science

How can we best present new and complex ideas to pupils? This article explores key principles from cognitive science.
© Chartered College of Teaching
In this article, the Chartered College of Teaching’s Head of Online Learning and Community, Hannah Tyreman, outlines the key research evidence that forms the foundation for this week’s learning.

One of the core activities for a teacher is presenting complex ideas to pupils in accessible and memorable ways.

An understanding of two key principles from cognitive science can help us to maximise the effectiveness of our presentations for building pupils’ knowledge and understanding, whether that’s through slides, videos, worksheets or whiteboard notes.

Dual coding

Dual coding is the process of combining verbal materials with visual materials… Dual coding theory is the idea that when we combine text information and visual information, our learning is enhanced because we process verbal and visual information through separate channels (Paivio, 1971; 1986). When you have the same information in two formats – words and visuals – this gives you two ways of remembering the information later on (Weinstein, Y et. al. 2018).

Here is how the learning from dual-coding might apply to our presentation of new learning:

  • If you’re explaining a concept using spoken or written words and you intend to follow the explanation with a diagram you’ll be overloading pupils’ working memory as they’re having to hold the explanation they’ve just received in their verbal processing channel and then they’re having to make the connections with the diagram in their pictorial channel. It’s far better if pupils are able to make the connections at the same time so where possible, have words presented simultaneously alongside a diagram, either through narration or written text.
  • If you’re providing pupils with a written explanation on a screen or a handout, then you should avoid narrating verbally whilst also expecting them to read text as this leads to an overload of their verbal processing channel.
  • Scaffolding complex information is a strategy that helps all pupils. Break a topic down into more manageable chunks where possible so that pupils are able to process one aspect before progressing to the next.

Cognitive Load Theory

‘Cognitive load theory, first researched by Sweller in the late 1980s, is based around the idea that our working memory – the part of our mind that processes what we are currently doing – can only deal with a limited amount of information at one time.’ (Shibli, D and West, R, 2018)

Cognitive load theory helps us to understand our memory in more detail and highlights the importance of not overloading pupils’ limited working memory. If we overload our working memory then it becomes harder for new learning to make its way into our long-term memory; an essential part of learning.

Cognitive load theory is especially complex and often contradictory, but the research evidence suggests there may be ways in which it can be applied to the presentation of new ideas. Let’s take a look at some of the key learning points:

  • If you’re presenting a diagram then you should aim for the labels to be in close proximity to the part of the diagram it relates to so that a pupil’s working memory isn’t overloaded trying to make the connections
  • If you’re using images in a slideshow, remove those which are superfluous and don’t contribute directly to learning so as not to overload working memory
  • If you’re describing the process of something where the steps are closely associated with one another, for instance with an experiment, try not to have the steps on separate slides as pupils will have to hold them all in their working memory and this will lead to overload

Later in this week, you’ll hear from Andy Tharby, Research Lead at Durrington Research School as he outlines 9 ways in which we can incorporate ideas from cognitive load theory in our design of slideshow presentations.

When you’ve read this article and made any notes to record key learning points, click the ‘Mark as complete’ button below and then select ‘Multimedia communication’ to continue your learning.
© Chartered College of Teaching
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