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Making Sense of Cognitive Load Theory

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Cognitive Load Theory: How Do I Apply it?

What is cognitive load and why is it important to educators? Cognitive load is the total amount of effort being used in working memory. Working memory is like a memory buffer, we use it to manipulate information for the task at hand. An example is to remember and use the rules of a game, while we are playing it. We also use it to manipulate new information as we are learning something new.

The idea of cognitive load came from the work of John Sweller, Richard Mayer and others. Working memory is limited, and as we learn, it can become overloaded, which reduces the amount of information we can move to our long term memory. The way we present information as teachers, can reduce cognitive load and increase learning.

So how do we do that? First, let’s consider how we take in information. When learning new material we primarily use our eyes and ears, or what Mayer might call the visual and audio channels. Everything we learn creates some cognitive load, some subjects might be more difficult than others. Mayer called this built in difficulty, intrinsic load. While we can match the intrinsic load to the experience of the learner, there’s not a lot we can do to reduce the inherent load. What we can control is the way we present our information, or what Sweller called extraneous load. By reducing extraneous load we can leave more room in working memory, thereby increasing retention.

Richard Mayer developed several load reducing techniques for presenting information, that are simple to understand, and easily implemented. Many of these techniques were developed for multimedia presentations like powerpoint, but apply equally to print materials. Let’s take a look at 5 of those principals.

First is coherence: Delete extraneous words and graphics and sounds. When sounds or images that are interesting, yet not essential are introduced, they increase cognitive load. Some examples of this might be transition sounds, or background music during the presentation of material to be learned.

Next is Signaling: When providing written text you can highlight what it is most important for the learner to know. When describing an electrical circuit with accompanying graphic, you could highlight the name of the components, or the picture of the components themselves when describing them.

Then we have Redundancy: which is related to coherence. People learn best from graphics and narration than graphics, narration, and onscreen text. Don’t put huge blocks of text on a Powerpoint slide and then read it! There may be some situations where visual and audio text might make pedagogical sense, as in the case of non-

native language learners. In this case signaling can decrease cognitive load by directing the learner to the essential text instead of them having to search for it.

Next is Spatial Contiguity: Place essential words next to corresponding graphics. Users should not have to guess what text is labeling. Text should be placed next to the elements they are describing, and captions should be unambiguous.

Finally, Temporal Contiguity: Present corresponding words and pictures simultaneously. Audio/Visual aspects are not as effective when presented at different times. If you are describing a traffic light then you should present the image of the traffic light the same time as the narration.

By using these techniques in your presentations or print material, you can decrease the cognitive load of your audience and increase retention.

©David Hendricks 2016


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