As an education professional, you always look for ways to improve your teaching methods and positively impact your students’ learning. One area that has gained a lot of attention in recent years is Cognitive Load Theory, which provides a scientific understanding of how our working memory operates when we learn new information.
Cognitive Load Theory has been described as ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’ (Wiliam 2017) and is even mentioned in the Ofsted Inspection Framework. If you’ve attended recent teacher CPD, it’s likely that Cognitive Load Theory has been at the top of the agenda. But what is it, why is it important, and how can we use it in the classroom?
What is Cognitive Load Theory?
While it might seem that Cognitive Load Theory is a new discovery, it’s actually been around since the 1980s. Coined in 1988 by John Sweller, it’s a psychological theory that explains how our working memory operates when we learn new information. Significantly, it suggests that working memory is a limited-capacity system that can only process a limited amount of information simultaneously.
Cognitive load is broken down into three areas:
Intrinsic cognitive load refers to the difficulty of the material being taught. In practice, this means that the cognitive load related to multi-step word problems using fractions and percentages is much higher than that required for simple addition. Given that our National Curriculum content is dictated to us, it’s difficult to manipulate intrinsic cognitive load – but it is worth considering how we approach teaching material in mixed-ability classes.
Extraneous cognitive load refers to the load imposed by the way the information is presented. In the classroom, this means the types of learning materials that you give to students, the learning environment itself and the presentation of IWB resources that you use to teach. Any distractions, irrelevant materials or unnecessary information can negatively affect the extraneous cognitive load.
Germane cognitive load refers to the cognitive load required for learning to occur. It is the load that is necessary for the formation of knowledge in long-term memory. For this stage to occur, students need to have an understanding of the topic already and be able to draw connections between this and the new learning.
What Does Cognitive Load Theory Look Like In The Classroom?
In the classroom, Cognitive Load Theory can be used to inform teaching methods that help to reduce extraneous and intrinsic cognitive load. This then allows more effective learning to occur. Mayer (2001) has drawn out some key practical methods that teachers can introduce based on the theory. Let’s take a look.
The Coherence Principle
Take a look at the materials you are using to teach. Any unnecessary information, images or distractions from the learning are negatively affecting your students’ abilities to take on new knowledge. This includes things like multiple fonts, animation on slides, coloured backgrounds and busy classroom displays. By removing all of the ‘fuss’, we can reduce cognitive overload, which means that children can focus on the material that matters.
The Signalling Principle
Even after you remove unnecessary information, there will still be some specific parts of your lesson you want to embed. This might be a particular process in Maths or specific dates in History. The signalling principle encourages you to draw attention to this particular essential information – you might highlight it, use a bold font or verbally signal it to make sure it sticks.
The Redundancy Principle
The redundancy principle occurs when the same material is repeated in multiple ways. Cognitive Load Theory suggests that this repetition interferes with learning rather than enhancing it – so avoid it where possible. If you have written information on a PowerPoint, there is no need to find a picture to match it. And if you have all of the information on a worksheet, you don’t need to read this out to your students as well.
The Spatial Contiguity Principle is about the actual space in between your text and visuals on the screen. Cognitive load theory suggests that children learn best when the text and visuals are physically close together. For teachers, this means placing labels close to pictures on a screen.
Temporal Contiguity means that learning is most effective when learning materials are presented together rather than successively. This allows children to make links between the information being presented and, in turn, allows learning to happen.
Cognitive Load Theory provides a scientific understanding of how our working memory operates when we learn new information. It can be used to inform effective teaching methods that help to reduce extraneous and intrinsic cognitive load. By applying these principles in the classroom, education professionals can help to improve student’s learning outcomes.
By gaining a deeper understanding of Cognitive Load Theory and its application in the classroom, you can become an even more effective and innovative educator, empowering your students to reach their full potential.