Cognitive Load
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Why should all teachers know this about the brain?

Think about how much weight you can lift: 40 Kg, 50 Kg, 60 Kg? An average adult person can lift somewhere around 45-60 kg. We get tired or may get hurt if we try to lift weight beyond this limit.

Have you ever wondered if there is a limit to the human brain's capacity to hold information as well? Educational Psychologists say Yes!  

When we study anything, our brain has to work to put all the information together meaningfully and store it. Some amount of work or effort is required to understand connections and concepts. However, if too much work is required to understand a concept, we reach a situation known as Cognitive Overload.

Look at the two explanations given below. Think about which one is easier for you to understand 'Linear momentum'.

When a topic is explained in an easy-to-understand manner, the cognitive load on our brain is less. But when things are presented in a complicated way with too much jargon and calculations, there is an extra load on our brain to understand the content. Sometimes we may feel confused and misunderstand the topic. 

To understand this theory better, imagine you wish to study rational numbers. You open a textbook and read the first line. What would you prefer as the start of the topic?

a.            2/3, 4/5, 3/23, 9/6  where b≠0 are rational numbers

b.            Let us look at a few numbers: 2/7, 7/2, 3, square root of 3. Which of these numbers is an odd one out?

The way you explain a concept can vastly increase or decrease students' cognitive load. Teachers must consider how the human brain learns and stores information while designing a lecture or presentation.

This theory is so relevant that British educationalist Dylan Williams called Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) "the single most important thing for teachers to know." 

Let's figure out why he said this.

How Does the Brain Learn?

Cognitive Load Theory is based on the work of educational psychologist John Sweller and his colleagues. According to them, our brain has a limited capacity to process information, and even slightly complex tasks can overload it. 

Our brain has a working memory that stores only a few bits of information at any moment and for a very short duration. The brain sends information to long-term memory structures known as schemas upon processing information. Here they are kept for a comparatively longer time.  

Three Kinds of Cognitive Load

Cognitive load is thought to be the sum of three kinds of cognitive load: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. 

A. Intrinsic Load: Intrinsic load is related to the internal complexity of the topic. It can be easy for an expert but difficult for a beginner.

B. Extraneous Load: The extraneous cognitive load is created from redundant or excess information.

Sometimes the learner's attention gets distracted or split attention towards more than one source of information, which contributes to extraneous cognitive load. Extraneous is considered a bad kind of cognitive load that prevents learning.

E.g. Explaining a simple geometric figure like a triangle can be done by showing a picture or explaining with words. The second approach will result in a higher cognitive load as only an image is sufficient to know what a triangle looks like. 

C. Germane Load: Our working memory is occupied during the transfer of information into the long-term memory. This occupation causes Germane load. 

Germane load is considered a good kind of load. It increases when teachers adapt teaching methods suitable to the kid's learning level (e.g., beginner or expert)

More ways to increase the germane load (the good kind of load):

a.            Simple-to-complex approach: The teacher starts with something simple for complex topics. They avoid the difficult parts in the beginning and gradually move to more complex topics.

b.            Part-to-whole approach: The teacher introduces only a part of the chapter first and makes sure kids understand it. Then they take the second part and third, and so on until the topic is complete. 

c.            Guide student's attention: Teachers can guide students to focus on understanding one concept and then on any related next concept. This facilitates schema formation.

How Can CLT Reduce the Burden of Students? 

1. Rephrase Your Questions for Clarity: If you put questions to students in a complicated manner, you can't expect solutions and understanding. Do ask complex questions but only in a way that helps students grasp the internal logic of the topic.

2. Allow Follow-Up Questions: Encourage a habit and practice of asking follow-up questions. Both teacher and students should come up with new questions based on each other's responses. A natural conversation on the topic helps reduce extraneous load. 

3. Invite Questions from 'New Hands': As the class discussion moves on, some kids might want to go back to earlier discussion topics. However, teachers should prioritize 'new hands,' i.e., students who want to engage with the current topic. This practice will help sustain the interest of all students.

If there are still uncovered questions about previous topics, students can always approach the teacher after the class.

4. Use Only Meaningful Information: We can think of working memory as a resource. You can guide it to only relevant information. Avoid providing excess information or repeating the same information in different words etc

According to Sweller, redundant information can be a prime reason for instructional failure and must be minimized. 

Using Open Door's Mastery Assessment program can improve this situation significantly. The assessment questions are concise and focus on a topic. We design questions for minimum cognitive load while ensuring concept building. Click here to know more.

5. Combine Sources of Information: Cognitive load is more when a learner has to understand two pieces of information like a text and a diagram separately to understand a concept. Integrate the two kinds of information by labelling the diagram sufficiently and using arrows to show movement and sequence. 

6. Using Two Media: CLT suggests that we can present using audio and visual forms to increase our working memory capacity to decrease the cognitive load.

E.g., To explain a diagram, the presenter should use audio or spoken form. Using both channels increases the capacity of working memory and facilitates effective learning.


Manish Dubey

Manish is a Business Associate at Open Door. He believes in the transformative power of education and thinks that every teacher can be a role model for children.

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