Tips for Teachers: 21. Reducing Cognitive Overload

Dec 5, 2023 | Blogs

Tips for Teachers: 21. Reducing Cognitive Overload

Dec 5, 2023 | Blogs

Cognitive architecture has implications. We need to consider the cognitive load involved in what we teach and be aware of the limited nature of working memory.

“Cognitive load” relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. Sweller (1988) said that, since working memory has a limited capacity, instructional methods should avoid overloading it with additional activities that don’t directly contribute to learning.

Intrinsic load is related to the inherent difficulty of the subject matter being taught.

Extraneous load is bad for learning because it can hinder the construction of long-term memories. It is extra and unnecessary thinking that does not contribute to learning.

Germane load is desirable, it is the load placed on working memory that contributes to genuine learning.

Effective teaching should:

  • Be mindful of intrinsic load – the complexity of new information,
  • Reduce extraneous load – unnecessary and distracting information,
  • Increase germane load – linking new information with current information.

Cognitive overload occurs when the working memory resources needed to process a task are greater than available working memory resources. When working memory is overloaded, content is hard to understand, learning becomes slow or ineffective, and transferring knowledge into long-term memory becomes difficult.

Reducing cognitive overload:

  • Keep any slide decks or presentations simple – ensure they do not have unnecessary pictures, animations, colours etc.
  • Include elements that pupils have in their long-term memory – revisit, retrieve and recall these frequently to embed them in the long-term memory.
  • Make explicit links between new information being taught and the knowledge, concepts and skills previously taught – if pupils can make links, it makes learning new information easier.
  • Break down new information into its constituent parts – sequence these carefully and teach individually before combining them as a whole.
  • Use simple-to-complex sequencing. Start with worked examples, then move to completion tasks then conventional tasks, where pupils are simply given the question. (Van Merriënboer et al., 2003.)

    This blog was written by Bretta Townend-Jowitt, Education Consultant and Trainer. 

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