Cognitive load…

It’s very easy to overload learners with information.We can reduce cognitive load.

Cognitive load and my interpretation of interactivity are closely linked. In my post on interactivity I talk about how information or learning content gets into the brain and stays there. For it to remain and be retrievable it needs to enter long term memory.

Before information can be lodged into long term memory, many psychologists, in particular Baddeley and Hitch in 1974 said that a buffer exists between the sensory information that we receive, noises, sounds, etc.  Working memory is the first place that this information begins to be processed. We ‘work’ on it. Working memory theory replaced the theory of short term memory and said that working memory has three parts:

  • Central executive – this controls working memory, directing it what to do. A bit like that chap with the table tennis rackets at an airport.
  • Visuo-spatial sketchpad – ‘the mind’s eye’ that processes visual memory. This is how we visualise how things work.
  • Phonological loop – the inner and inner voice. Ever tried tried to remember a phone number and said it in your head over and over?

This may be where learning styles ‘theory’ has come from. Visual learning in the viuso-spatial sketchpad and auditory learning in the phonological loop. Now, I am not a fan of this categorisation or boxing of people and there is no evidence to say that we have prefered ‘learning styles’. My use of inverted commas in this paragraph tells you all you need to know about my thoughts on learning styles. Many psychologists say that these three elements of working memory all work together, in itself dispelling the learning styles theory. One categorisation I think we should make is the novice and the expert.

Working memory is extremely limited and is the reason that we can’t actually remember that much. That phone number that we tried to remember earlier is pretty tricky. If the cognitive load is too great then we just cannot deal with all of the incoming information and do anything with it. Think of trying to do mental mathematics. There is only so far that you can go without writing numbers down as you attempt to remember numbers before continuing your calculations. This is all happening in working memory. The amount of stuff that can be going on in working memory is described by cognitive psychologists as cognitive load.

So, we kind of know that when designing learning it should be as clear and simple as possible, but why? Educational psychologists have broken down cognitive load into two parts to show how learners learn new things. They break down cognitive load into intrinsic and extraneous loads. As learning designers it has been found that we can reduce extraneous cognitive loads. Intrinsic load is the cognitive load that is required to complete the task that the learner is attempting to learn. Learning a new piece of software, working out complex mathematical equations, anything that is something new to master. Extraneous cognitive load is the load on working memory that the learning material places on working memory. What the learner is trying to learn is not going to change but the learning materials that they use certainly can. If these can be as simple as possible then they can free up much more resource to concentrate on that intrinsic load and learning the new task. You can find loads of this kind of stuff under the banner of UX design, here’s an example.

As information is manipulated and interacting with other information in long term memory (the stuff the learner already knows) it starts to make connections with that information in long term memory and joins the party. These connections are schemas which are networks of information. One of the reasons experts in a certain field can pick up new information in that field much quicker than novices is that those schemas already exist so interacting and linking to the others are much easier.

Of course, it goes without saying that all learning should have the lowest extraneous load possible. Don’t forget to take account of the extraneous load and the learner’s existing knowledge and existing schemas.The lower the extraneous load provided by learning materials and methods the more room there is in working memory to interact with new information.


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