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Unloading the Mind: Cognitive Load Theory
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Interesting article on the TES website (How useful is cognitive load theory for teachers?) about cognitive load theory and how we should think about it while we teach.  We love to push and challenges students to not only memorize facts, figures and theories, but also to apply and think critically about that newly learned material. But how do you create a roadmap to success for a classroom full of students from different backgrounds and with varying knowledge bases?

 

That's where keeping the idea of Cognitive Load Theory in mind can help. Hailed as “the single most important thing for teachers to know” by University College London emeritus professor of educational assessment, Dylan Wiliam, this theoretical teaching model focuses on memory and how to best utilize the load placed on it.

 

Memory Basics

 

Consider the two types of memory: working memory and long-term memory:

 

  1. Working memory is used to hold small packets of new information for immediate use (oral instructions to complete a task, for example).
  2. Long-term memory, of course, is where we store a trove of information gained from prior learning or experience.

CLT proposes that by managing the intrinsic and extraneous loads on working memory, teachers will better equip their students to fully understand new information and turn it into long-term memories.

 

Intrinsic vs Extraneous Loads

 

Intrinsic load: new material always carries with it an intrinsic load: the amount of effort needed to truly understand the new idea. That load gets heavier the further it is removed from a student's current knowledge base. In other words, students who have no familiarity with a topic must carry a heavier load than those who at least have a general base on which to build. While teachers can't level the playing field when it comes to intrinsic load, they can more effectively educate by reducing the extraneous load.

 

Extraneous load: this refers to ideas an content which are related to the intrinsic material to be learned, but which may not be critically necessary for students to understand new materials. Examples might be:

 

  • images
  • video
  • anecdotes
  • quotes

There's a best time to introduce these learning aids, but if the content is complex enough to begin with it's best to hold off on these materials so as not to increase extraneous load.

 

By "cutting the fat" and teaching in clear and concise steps, students have a better opportunity to digest the information, chew on it, and form a more comprehensive understanding.

 

Classroom Applications

 

So how does a teacher apply CLT in the classroom? The New South Wales’ Department for Education designed seven steps for Cognitive Load Theory in Practice:

 

  1. Whenever possible, create lessons that build on existing knowledge.
  2. Use worked examples to demonstrate new information.
  3. Increase independent problem solving only once the new information is fully understood.
  4. Eliminate inessential information.
  5. Keep essential information together, which includes repeating earlier information (orally or visually) when students need it to understand the point at hand.
  6. Lecture with visual aids to make information easier to understand (dual-coding).
  7. Ask students to visualize the information, which engages the long-term memory and helps students review.