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Why Teachers Should Be Mindful of Cognitive Load in Their Students

June 10, 2020

While many of today’s students are digital natives, remote learning has been a relatively new experience for most. From understanding the tools in their learning platform and communicating with peers and teachers online, they’ve been expected to do more with varying levels of guidance.

As remote learning begins to see its end for this school year, it also means that students are exposed to more distractions in non-academic activities. Worrying about the current pandemic and its consequences as well as impending summer break consume students’ mental resources. These challenges could not only increase students’ cognitive load and negatively affect learning outcomes but also make it harder to achieve equity and accessibility goals in educational learning.

Understanding Cognitive Load

“Our ‘bandwidth’ for processing information is related to the capacity of working memory,” explained Madeleine Keehner, managing senior research scientist in R&D at ETS. “Your working memory is your mental workspace, and it contains whatever you are consciously aware of, attending to, or thinking about right now. As you are reading this article, for example, the words and ideas are being represented and processed in your working memory.”

Cognitive load, on the other hand, is the information being handled in working memory at any given moment, and generally speaking, the greater the load the greater the mental effort or mental work. But it is not just the amount of load that matters for learning – the type of load is also important to consider.

According to research there are three different types of cognitive load: intrinsic load, which is cognitive effort due to the complexity of the learning task; extraneous load, the cognitive effort due to handling information irrelevant to learning goals; and germane load, the cognitive effort for creating and automating mental structures that organize knowledge.

“These different types of cognitive load compete for the limited working-memory capacity of learners,” said Jung Aa Moon, research scientist in R&D at ETS. “Research suggests that typically, extraneous load should be minimized unless the ability to deal with irrelevant information is the target of learning. Minimizing extraneous load can free up enough mental resources for learning activities that induce germane load, which can result in positive learning outcomes.”

For teachers, it is important when designing learning materials for remote learning to avoid inadvertently including extraneous cognitive load.

Keeping Students on Track

When students are learning independently, or only with support from non-experts like their parents, they might be inadvertently spending time and mental effort on activities that are irrelevant to learning. For teachers, it is important when designing learning materials for remote learning to avoid inadvertently including extraneous cognitive load. While many teachers probably already do much of the following perhaps instinctively, this information is meant to help reinforce their work by specifically making the connection between what they do on a daily basis and research findings.

Here are some ways teachers can continue to approach design to reduce cognitive load (PDF):

  • Provide the right amount of information: Avoid providing too much or too little information. Also cut out redundant information or information irrelevant to learning goals.
  • Break down a complex task into smaller pieces: Instead of asking them to complete X and Y at the same time, give them task X first and then give them task Y. Segmenting a task into smaller, more manageable tasks was found to promote learning and reduce cognitive load in a simulation-based science learning task.
  • Integrate information: Many learning materials present multiple pieces of information such as an image and accompanying text. Learners are likely to experience increased cognitive load if they have to mentally integrate information from these sources. Spatially integrating text and images by placing them next to each other, or connecting them with cues that highlight related parts of the information to signal their correspondence, can reduce cognitive load.
  • Pre-train students: Give students enough opportunities to learn how to use new tools and features in a learning platform. Pre-training can help students focus their mental resources on learning the target content rather than less important activities such as trying to figure out how to use learning tools and features.

In addition to being mindful of the design of their materials in remote environments, Keehner explained that teachers should look for signs of cognitive fatigue in their students. “Cognitive fatigue results from sustained cognitive engagement that taxes mental resources,” she explained. “Persistent fatigue leads to lower motivation, increased distractibility, and poor information processing. Studies have shown that many learners experience worsening performance over the duration of a task, as seen by increased errors, slower response times, increased self-reported ratings of fatigue and lower ratings of motivation. If students are showing signs of these effects, it may be time to take a break –research shows that breaks are very effective for recharging learners’ cognitive resources, particularly for younger learners, and a movement break (where students get up and move around) can be especially helpful.”

Cognitive Load and English Language Learners (ELLs)

“Managing cognitive load may look a bit different for ELLs, especially if we are helping them accomplish real-world tasks in English,” said Shoko Sasayama, associate research scientist in R&D at ETS. In general, a combination of increased germane load and minimized extraneous load is argued to facilitate performance and learning of ELLs as well. However, increased extraneous load may also play an important role for this learner population.

For example, talking over the phone or online often comes with challenges, such as a bad audio connection or loud background noise. “These factors are extraneous to ELLs’ learning of English per se,” Sasayama explained. “However, if learners need to be able to deal with these factors in the real world, introducing such factors and increasing extraneous load deliberately is actually a good idea. It helps learners develop strategies to accommodate the messiness of the real world and thus leads to better learning.”

One thing to keep in mind is to introduce extraneous load strategically (PDF). In the above scenario, the introduction of extraneous load makes the most sense when ELLs are already able to make a basic phone conversation in a quiet space. In other words, the key is to know learners’ current ability levels and increase cognitive load incrementally.

Although we’re winding down the school year, it shouldn’t be lost on teachers to take note of the advantages and drawbacks remote learning has afforded. Teachers should continue to consider the impact it has had to the cognition of their students and ways to improve for fall should be at the forefront as we navigate remote learning as a new part of our educational lives.