Cognitive Load Theory in Practice

This academic year we are paying particular attention to understanding the principles of Cognitive Load Theory (that emerged from the work of John Sweller) and are carefully considering how this can be applied in the classroom to maximise students’ learning. Drawing on the NSW’s Cognitive Load in Practice in particular, members of the Ped Team have been considering its applications in their subject:

Cognitive Load Theory and the Geography Classroom

I have found that CLT is making me increasingly aware of the load we put on our pupils’ limited working memory. This might be from extraneous information in the environment, poorly planned explanations or overly complex tasks involving too many steps. I have tried addressing this by keeping things simple. I start by making sure that their attention is focused only on those things necessary to their learning and so strip away distractions either from the environment or from their behavior. I then make sure my explanation is clear and to the point; avoiding tangents and asides. Finally, I keep the application straightforward so that they are focusing on the learning and not the activity.

Mark Enser, Geography

Cognitive Load Theory and the English Classroom

The start of the academic year is the perfect time of year to focus on cognitive load. Hear the words at any other time of year and you might possibly be forgiven for thinking they sound like just another couple of educational buzzwords, but hear them in September, when students and staff alike are back in school and struggling to assimilate the crowds, the bustle and the sheer volume of information coming at them in every direction and they seem a powerful key to unlocking not just educational success but straightforward sanity for all concerned.

Starting the year with a careful focus on keeping students’ in-class intake of information manageable has the added bonus of making the transition from holiday to hard work a more reasonable and more ordered one. And stopping regularly to check that they’ve actually taken in the information they’ve been given means that no one is under any confusion.

Whether the topic is simple sentences with Y7, review writing for Y9, quotations for Y11 or A level poetry, my key aim in these opening weeks has been to take everyone with me and to keep checking they’re on board. Literally. The mini whiteboards and dry-wipe markers have been out in force as a result. It might feel sometimes like this approach means taking two steps forward and then one back to double check that the first step hasn’t been forgotten, but what’s not to love about that in the long run? This careful, methodical process ensures that the key information is being embedded in students’ memories. It’s going back to those egg-sucking basics of teacher training: What do they know? What do I want them to know? How can I communicate it clearly? How do I know when they’ve got it? Clear information, model examples, repeated low stakes questioning and – most importantly – repeated whole class response for students to show what they know and how they can apply that knowledge means that everyone has to engage with the process and that no one is left behind.

By keeping new information in a clear, digestible format – no doubling up between elaborate PowerPoints and simultaneous lectures – and by checking it has been digested and processed with regular whole class response, the students – and I – have managed to make it through September without our heads exploding. They’re demonstrably confident in using their new knowledge, and I’m confident that they’re doing it right because I’ve seen them do it, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, on their mini whiteboards. This means, as we head into October, that I can see the weak spots that need reinforcing and I can see the space opening up for new information ahead. So far, so good. So far, so manageable.

Cathy Savage, English

In English, we use scaffolding and modelling to ensure that students know what to do and how to do it, particularly in terms of exam skills. One way we have taken account of cognitive load is to make use of scaffolding and modelling when preparing Year 11 students for plotting a story in the creative writing section of one of their English Language exams. We have learnt that the plot of a story is one of the key things the examiners are looking for. Having explored a variety of creative writing techniques in Year 10, we work through a specific story section by section. We show students a model of an opening paragraph, for example, talk through what has been written, how it has been written and why this is a good example, then students write their own version for a similar story. We follow the same pattern for the whole piece so that students’ stories are tightly plotted but they have only focused on a very short section at a time. This takes away the anxiety of ‘what shall I write about’ and the tendency to spend too long on the first half then rush the second.

Jo Sheldon, English

Cognitive Load Theory and the Science Classroom

When reading more about cognitive overload, it was certainly overwhelming to think about where I could begin to make changes to my teaching that would help to reduce students being overwhelmed with information and not over loading their working memories. I chose to focus on making a subtle and manageable change and have been (attempting!) to master this in the past few weeks. I chose to focus on ‘cutting out inessential information’ by ensuring I am not presenting new information in multiple forms i.e. writing out the stages of mitosis on the board and then standing there and reading it out to students. The theory suggests that presenting information in multiple forms is redundant and increases cognitive load. I have been more carefully selecting my resources and what I am putting on my PowerPoint slides. For example, when describing the process of immunity to GCSE students, I will have a single diagram on the board, showing the relevant cells I am describing and talk them through the process, without any words on the board for them to be reading. This enables students to focus on what I am saying, without also trying to read it through as text or annotations on the board. Wherever possible, I am trying to tweak resources and make sure I am not presenting the same information in multiple ways as well as cutting out inessential information that students won’t benefit from. It has taken me a while to get the hang of it but I am slowly starting to become more aware as time goes on.

Jess Gillespie, Science

Cognitive Load Theory and the Maths Classroom

When developing students’ knowledge of your subject or a particular topic you need to ensure you do not generate excessive cognitive load with in lessons. The main way you can achieve this is to include / use students pre-existing knowledge within your teaching- a key element of Cognitive Load Theory. When introducing the concept of algebra, I have found that using student’s basic knowledge of numbers, letters and functions enables the lower ability students to access the basic foundations for algebra. I can then introduce students to the subject specific vocabulary such as coefficient, variable and constant. This then equips students to transfer their prior knowledge of numbers and letters to understand algebra as a mathematical concept without being overwhelmed. With this foundation, I can then increase the difficulty through including different aspects of algebra such as simplify, expand and factorise. This has been successful way of helping to manage students’ cognitive load. It has also required a clear sequencing of lessons so that the difficulty has built gradually with a keen focus on building on the learning blocks of students’ knowledge. As a consequence, students grow in confidence and are more successful.

Toni Walton, Maths

Additional Reading:

https://www.cese.nsw.gov.au/publications-filter/cognitive-load-theory-research-that-teachers-really-need-to-understand

https://www.tes.com/news/how-useful-cognitive-load-theory-teachers

https://researchschool.org.uk/durrington/blog/cognitive-load-theory-and-what-it-means-for-classroom-teachers

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