Monday, 7 October 2019

Cognitive Load Theory and its implications on teaching and learning - Ian Stonnell & Ian Hayden

What is cognitive load theory? It sounds complicated. Well it is and it isn't.

Put in its most simple terms cognitive load theory states that our brains have a limited working memory that can only process small amounts of new information from our environment. If we overload this working memory we are not going to be able to process it and therefore the new information will be forgotten.

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A simple model of memory. The working memory is the part that we don't want to overload!

That's a problem for teachers. Today with the expectations of the new curriculum too often we teach at pace, overloading our students, and then wonder why they have forgotten everything we tried to teach them. We've all been there during exam revision when a class genuinely looks back at you with sincere eyes and say, "Sir, we can't ever remember you teaching us that topic". They probably aren't lying to you.

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If we have overloaded our students working memory chances are nothing was ever learnt in the first place.
However, the implications of cognitive load theory can give teachers a wide variety of strategies to help improve teaching and learning and support long term memory. We discussed two avenues of inquiry - (1) How can we alter the way we present information to minimise cognitive load? (2) How can we aid the retrieval of prior knowledge to aid transferring knowledge into the long term memory?

Willingham's simple model of the mind.

General strategies could be:
  1. When starting new concepts teach slow, accelerate later. 
  2. Consider the knowledge you want students to remember in each learning episode.
  3. Use explanation strategies that avoid overloading working memory and encourage connections with prior knowledge.
  4. Tie any new learning to knowledge already in the long term memory.
  5. Integrate retrieval practice strategies routinely into lessons to enhance student access to knowledge stored in the long term memory.
In our research group we discussed several specific strategies underpinned by cognitive load theory including:
  1. The take home strategy (as demonstrated by Adam Boxer).
  2. Knowledge organisers
  3. Interleaving and spacing
  4. Routine low stakes retrieval practice (including homework)
  5. Explanation strategies e.g. dual coding/direct instruction/worked examples.
Off course cognitive load theory is a lot more complex than how I have presented it here, however, I don't want to overload you with too much unnecessary information! If you want to know more about cognitive load theory and any of the other strategies feel free to peruse some of the links below or search for yourself!

Cognitive load theory and applications:
Knowledge organisers:
Dual Coding:
Retrieval practice:
Explanation techniques (based on understanding of CLT):
Interleaving and spacing:

Hope you find this helpful!

Ian Stonnell @DenbighCPD
Ian Hayden @IanHayden8

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