A parents guide to Cognitive Load Theory

Zoe Benjamin, Assistant Head Teaching and Learning, Heathfield School

Zoe Benjamin provides us with a brief explanation of Cognitive Load Theory and what it means in her classroom.

How exactly do you embrace Cognitive Load Theory?

The purpose of this article is to provide an accessible introduction that can be shared with students or parents to an area of research that has permanently changed the way I plan and deliver lessons: Cognitive Load Theory.  

Learning is understood to be a permanent change to our long-term memory.  The cognitive processes involved in transferring information to our long-term memory give us insights into how to improve memory and make learning more effective.  For information to move into our long-term memory, it must first be attended to and processed in a meaningful way by our working memory.

Unfortunately, our working memory has a very limited capacity and can become overloaded quickly if there is an excessive amount of external or internal information needing to be processed at the same time. External information may be physical (a teacher moving around the room),visual (images or text on the board), or auditory (the teacher’s voice).  Internal information could be exam-anxiety, excitement about an after-school activity, or concern about a friend.

cognitive load theory for beginners

To maximise the effectiveness of the working memory during lessons, it is important for teachers to present new information in small steps and build on prior knowledge whenever possible.  The working memory processes images and speech separately; images are processed in the visuospatial sketchpad while speech is processed in the phonological loop.  Research has shown that pairing images and speech together can increase the capacity of students’ working memory during lessons (the modality effect). Conversely, learning is less effective if speech and text need to be processed at the same time as students need their phonological loop to listen to their ‘inner voice’ and the teacher talking at the same time (the split-attention effect).

In response to cognitive load theory, I have adopted the following strategies in the classroom:

Narrating over images and keeping text to a minimum within images

I keep talk and text separate and won’t read from the board

‘Silent teacher’ – I model answers in silence and give students time to process whatI’ve done before narrating my solution or answering questions

I remove all redundant information from slides or worksheets and, whenever possible, keep physical distractions to a minimum during lessons.

implications of the cognitive load theory

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Mrs Zoe Benjamin, Assistant Head Teaching and Learning, Senior Teacher Mathematics.