Effective use of instruction to minimise cognitive load to enhance learning

Learning is meant to be difficult; if it’s not hard then you are probably not learning. Yet, that does not mean we ignore the unnecessary complexities added to instruction that can occur any classroom. The minimising of cognitive load allows for the learner to put more time and effort in learning (and not needless features of lesson design or tasks). Our long term memory may be limitless but our working memory is not. For that reason it is critical that instructional design does not impair learning but enhance it.

Cognitive load can occur in three ways – Intrinsic, extraneous and germane. Each feature impacts a different part in the instructional design process but all having the same effect on working memory. Intrinsic cognitive load is the result of inherent demands of the learning task, whereas extraneous is how the material is transferred to the learner and germane is the time devoted to the processing of information.

Instructional planning needs to be sensitive to each feature and careful consideration taken to lesson deliver and resources. Or you risk overloading a learner and inducing cognitive load by “white noise” resulting in less time being dedicated to learning.

For instance, a lesson task that involves many resources and that are not effectively sequenced could clutter working memory resulting in cognitive load. Instead, think carefully of the resources and instruction delivery.

There are many strategies to reduce cognitive load, but here are a few top tips to consider when planning a lesson.

  1. Eliminate redundancy – Removing unnecessary duplication of information. Reducing repetitive information can keep similar information to a minimum. A combination of resources such as pictures and spoken or written instructions can increase cognitive load for novices and experts. For instance, sharing with pupils a fully detailed diagram outlining the makeup of a volcano while listening to a video explaining the key features of a volcano can lead to cognitive load. Simply on or the other resource at time will be sufficient. For instance, start with the video, have the students then complete a blank diagram recalling the key features and then use the detailed resource to self-assess their task.
  2. Chunking – Breaking complex content into smaller chunks or categorising information. Chunking mitigates cognitive load by managing demand on working memory. For example, learning the following words cat, truck, monkey, train, lizard, and boat would be easier to learn chunked in “like” groups such as cat, monkey, lizard and truck, train, boat. Working memory now handles the groupings of words as two pieces of information (animals and vehicles) instead of a list of words that would be treated by working memory as six different pieces of information.
  3. Avoid split attention – On the surface, split attention is quiet similar to the redundancy effect. However, the impact is when a body of information is presented across a range of resources. This causes the learner to split their attention between the different resources to make sense of the task or activity. For example, when teaching angles a maths teacher may have an isosceles triangle with a worked example outlined below (working out how to solve each angle of the triangle). The learner has to look back and forth between the triangle and worked problem – simply embedding the two can reduce the split attention effect leading to a reduction in cognitive load.
  4. Use of worked examples – Sharing with learners step by step instructions to solve a problem can significantly reduce cognitive load. The use of worked examples reduces ambiguity and provides a structure in which learners can effectively memorise. For instance, sharing and explaining a stepped-out worked example on how to solve a linear equation provides explicit knowledge for students to have a better understanding to solve the equation. Worked examples should be regularly integrated in the planning which reduces the need for large practice sets (this frees curriculum time for more learning). Though, there is a note of caution. Worked examples benefit novice learners, less so for experts.

In practice, novice and expert students are sometimes associated with ability but to be an expert learner one must start as a novice. Therefore reducing knowledge or skills for certain classes or students under guises such as differentiation can be harmful to student learning. The idea of differentiation took an unhealthy u-turn when teachers believed or were instructed to ensure that all student needs were met in planning. This resulted in high intensity, low impact strategies that subsequently increased teacher workloads. For example, reducing content or setting low expectation learning objections (All, most, some models). The problem with differentiation is that most students needs are not necessarily that different (they may have a different “style” in learning – preferring illustrations to written task – but that does not mean a person has an actually “learning style”). Therefore, differentiation can create or widen existing knowledge gaps between students. Instead of reducing knowledge or lowering expectations, consider how cognitive load is impacting the lesson plan because the issue may not be the content but the structure of the delivery.

To illustrate how the planning for cognitive load can improve lesson delivery, I recently observed a maths lesson on balancing equations. On the surface the lesson was well-planned. Tasks were intelligently sequenced and key basic maths skills were made explicit to highlight prior learning. In short, the teacher quickly shared a worked example and students were instructed to complete a practice task which was divided into three parts (bronze, silver and gold) with each section having six practice questions. Students were to complete the bronze practice questions first and then move to silver and so forth. Each step was progressively more challenging. Students got to work, whilst the teacher carefully selected students to work with him on a back table for in class intervention. At the end of the lesson the teacher recapped some of the key misconceptions and they were dismissed in an orderly fashion to their next lesson.

Once the students had left I met with the teacher. The lesson had much strength. Though on reflection it became clear that some students were struggling with bronze, other had completed all parts of silver and little of gold and a small portion had nothing to show. It was obvious that the next lesson would be used to close the gap, however that was another lesson closing gaps that could have been already been addressed. And the issue was not the content but the structure of the learning – which led to significant cognitive load, opened learning gaps in student knowledge and wasted learning time.

The lesson could have been completed and assessed in the one lesson without any differentiation of knowledge or the need an additional lesson.

Without changing any of the lesson content, we redesigned the lesson addressing cognitive load. The new lesson plan consisted of a worked example that was thoroughly explained followed by two “bronze” timed practice questions. Both questions were then compared to the worked example and marked as a class. The discussion was around each step to eliminate any misconceptions. A new worked example was then shared and discussed in detail. This time the students had to complete four practice questions. The teacher then carefully selected students to provide in-class intervention. Again, each question was marked as a class and the routine continued and was tightly planned to ensure that the learning was completed by the end of the lesson.

The new lesson was then delivered to a new class. There were noticable differences from the original lesson – every student completed the work, formative assessment informed students how to improve and directed the teacher to identify and close knowledge gaps and it saved a lesson from being wasted. Nothing was subtracted from the learning, more so the learning and challenge increased; therefore students had to think harder.

Learning happens when you have to think hard but the challenge must be directly from the learning, not a by-product of poor planning that can overload working memory. Carefully structuring knowledge and skills that eliminates redundancy of information, which considers chunking of knowledge, avoids the splitting of learners attention of the main learning goal and effectively applies worked examples can significantly reduce cognitive load.

A reduction of cognitive load provides more working memory space for students to think hard and ultimately learn more.