Cognitive Load Theory & Affecting Change

Introduction – Getting out of ‘The Cycle’

Twitter is an absolute goldmine of discussion when it comes to teaching and learning concepts and new pedagogical discussion. It is a place where no matter how far you are into your teaching journey, there is guaranteed to be something that may peek your interest.

 I came across a tweet in which a science teacher I follow complained that the scientific method is not applied rigorously enough to what happens in our classrooms. The tweet stated that all too often overworked teachers rely on ‘what works’ and nowhere near enough time is devoted to education research. As somebody that has only ever worked in one school, I somewhat agreed with this post, I had spent many hours in my first few years of teaching carefully designing Power Points for almost everything I would ever teach. Every time I taught the lesson again, I would go over the lesson, make some simple changes, depending on the prior attainment of the class I would adjust the challenge of the lesson accordingly. I was in a cycle of delivering similar lessons again and again, these lessons very much worked; however, I knew there was scope for change. At the end of the tweet was a link to an article (reference 2), which would have a profound impact on the effective pedagogy in my lessons.

Seeing the Light – Stopping the Overload

The article I read was on cognitive load theory (CLT), this theory has its roots in the beginning of cognitive science dating back to the 1950s. When linked to teaching this is a high impact, low effort strategy to improve any instructional design. By changing ones approaches to how a lesson is delivered in line with the principles of CLT, the effective learning in lessons is clearly improves, that is took 60 years to get here to the forefront of education research is perhaps a worrying indictment on how little educational psychology is considered in day to day learning.

The theory can be explained in very simple terms, the students brains can be imagined as computers with a finite amount of processing power. To maximise effective learning, as much processing power as possible needs to be designated to the actual task at hand. Strip away anything extraneous, if less processing power is utilised finding and deciphering information, more processing power can be used to complete the required task.

The Theory

There are 3 types of load on working memory to be considered in instructional design:

  • Intrinsic Cognitive Load (ICL) – This is the inherent difficulty of the task. In simplistic terms ICL cannot be controlled by the person delivering the learning, we know that reading Dostoyevsky is more challenging than reading J.K Rowling. ICL can however be moderated through effective instructional design. As I science teacher I have always found chemical bonding a challenging topic to teach, it has many abstract ideas that need to be brought together into one coherent model. Bonding can be clearly broken down in to subtopics, by considering subtopics in isolation, with appropriate scaffolding, these areas can be later linked together to more effectively manage ICL.
  • Extraneous Cognitive Load (ECL) – This refers to the unnecessary thinking that learners must do when completing a task (reference 3). This links back to the computer metaphor, this is the processing power being used, but not for the specific task being completed. This is where are teachers we can have the most impact, by considering how the material is delivered, we can aim to reduce as much ECL as possible to give students the best chance of successful learning.
  • Germane Cognitive Load (GCL) – This is forming and storing of long term new understanding, this is exactly what we are hoping for our students to achieve as educators. When considering instructional design, we need to manage intrinsic load and reduce extraneous load, by doing this we can ensure students spend as much as their energy as possible on the construction of new understanding through meaningful GCL.

Trial and Visualising Success

Every lesson I have seen in an observation and every lesson I have delivered myself have, at some time had the following:

  • A teacher in front of a interactive whiteboard speaking to a class on a topic
  • A Power Point (or equivalent) slide behind them containing text
  • A Power Point (or equivalent) slide behind them containing a (often not relevant) photo / cartoon.
  • A Power Point (or equivalent) slide behind them containing a question / task.

This alone contains a large amount extraneous cognitive load; are students to copy the text off of the board, draw the picture in their books, listen to the teacher, try and write what the teacher is saying or try and answer the question on the board. This is where I feel we, as a body of professionals have fundamentally got it wrong. The method of delivery of information is muddled and incoherent, by considering the minutiae when delivering a lesson, we can begin to ask ourselves what are we hoping our students are doing and what are we hoping our students are getting out of this part of the lesson.

One of the simplest way to do this is to move away from using pre-prepared slides and utilising the whiteboard more, this way students can better see the thought process behind what is happening. Through teaching a lot of chemistry and physics, I have had to teach students on carrying out a number of complex calculations, as a new teacher I often would use my slides as a crutch, as I knew if I made a mistake, I had a perfectly laid out correct working and answer. By showing students a computer generated perfect answer they are being robbed of working through the steps logically and I am failing to manage the intrinsic cognitive load of the content. By investing in a visualiser, I now work through all calculations on lined paper, showing students a step by step approach to working through the problem (reference 6). By doing this, at any point I can stop to ask students what is the reason for this step, or they can stop me if they’re unsure why a step has been carried out. This effective scaffolding far increases the likelihood of maximising Germane cognitive load.

Metacognition? – Why don’t your Power Points look as fun as they did?

The simplest way to start incorporating the principles of CLT into lessons is to go through the slides you use when delivering a lesson to the students. What are you hoping for the students to get out of the slide? If you are hoping for the students to learn a new technical word, have the word and its definition alone on the slide, this way students will know they need to write it down. From there, once everyone has it written down, a discussion can be had about the new word, then examples can be used where the new words is applied. All you have done is ordered your delivery of information, if this is in a clear logical order, then hopefully the students thinking is in a clear logical order (reference 5). The extraneous has been stripped away and meaningful work can be carried out by all.

I now, as a first step in applying the principles of CLT, before every lesson go through my slides and cut out all the extraneous pictures and text. This practice has led to many students asking why my Power Points don’t look as fun as they used to now they are not filled with pictures. By explaining that these unnecessary pictures were merely a distraction and I want you to be thinking clearly on what will help the most with generating new understanding. I believe that for some students this has helped them reflect on their own learning, and what they are actually doing when receiving instruction.

As mentioned previously, the intrinsic cognitive load associated with a task cannot be altered; however it can be managed to ensure students have the best chance to synthesis new understanding. Cognitive load theory encompasses effective strategies for the development of technical language and the contextualisation of information across internal topics and different subject areas (reference 7). There is room for CLT for (reference 6) considering the zone of proximal development (ZPD) of the students, this is the managing what students can achieve on their own, and what they still need assistance with from a competent source. To effectively manage ICL when students are undertaking challenging work, appropriate scaffolding needs to be used. The CLT principles on this are:

  1. Do a worked example.
  2. Give the students a question that is as close to the worked example as possible.
  3. Check understanding then build up the challenge.

This ensures students are pushed beyond their ZPD too soon, therefore far more challenging work can be undertaken in the lesson as the foundation on which students learn are far more robust.

Lighting a Fire

I liaised with teachers from the SEND department on the principles behind CLT, I felt it was working well in my lessons and wished to share my experiences on the positive effect it was having on the synthesis on new understanding in the students I was working with. It was something they too were using in their SEND lessons and believed it could be rolled out to greater effect across the school. Articles were shared with the whole staff on the principles of CLT and how it could be incorporated into lessons.

The more and more I tried to teach to the principles of CLT in my lessons, the more I believed it was having a positive effect on the generation of new understanding in the students I was working with. I spoke to the Head of Science and asked if I could deliver a training session to the staff on the principles of CLT in lessons. This session was generally very well received, the principles are simple and clear with obvious benefits to be seen if the principles are utilised effectively.

My session covered the basics of CLT as mentioned above, please if you have time look at the references below, they incorporate far more strategies to utilise when considering task planning and assessment.  This blog is a synopsis of my experiences using CLT and my attempts to increase the use of the principles behind it in my department.

The Common Aim

The science department I work in has a strong sharing of lessons culture where many of the teachers in the department will teach the same scheme of lessons. This is particularly prevalent at KS3, where most classes are delivered the same lessons, by different teachers. I liaised with the Head of KS3 Science, it was decided that I would redesign the entire sequence of lessons a single chapter of year 7 chemistry utilising the principles of CLT. The effectiveness could then be judged at the end of the chapter by assessing the students on their understanding, the early data comparisons have been extremely positive, however it is a small sample size.

Conclusions and Moving Forward

Affecting change in a mainstream school will always be a challenge; my school is in Greater London where there is a large shortage of teachers particularly in the science department. This makes the department a mix of experienced teachers who often have an engrained teaching style, ITTs and NQTs, and short term supply staff. For varying different reasons it can be difficult to expect to people to try and change their teaching style and incorporate new ideas into their classrooms where teaching styles can be very personal.

Moving forward I believe there have been some successes in the school with respect to utilising CLT to maximise effective learning. The SEND department have embedded these principles in the lessons they deliver when working with students with additional learning needs to ensure the students are making meaningful progress.

Moving forward I wish to liaise with he NQT coordinator for the school, to ensure all new teachers entering the school are introduced to the principles behind CLT. The pedagogy used by new teachers tends to be a mixture of their own internal philosophies on what learning should look like, affected by their individual experiences in the classroom, with impacts from the various mentors they have throughout their fledgling careers. I believe when affecting whole school change in teaching and learning, working with new teachers when their teaching and learning principles are at their most malleable will yield the largest long term impact. For the rest of the school year I have arranged for NQT teachers to observe this style of teaching in the hope that they become as inspired by these principles as I have.

References for Further Reading

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