Our brains work best when challenged—but not when overloaded. When we encounter new information or are attempting to learn new content, we need to monitor and manage the rate, complexity, and volume of what we are asking our brains to absorb, process, and store.
The amount and nature of new information we are asking our brains to manage is known as cognitive load. New information is initially stored in our working memory. Cognitive load refers to the amount of working memory required to complete a learning task. Once information is learned, it is stored in long-term memory, where we can access it in the future.
Unfortunately, our working memory has limited capacity to process information. Consider that most people can manage between five and nine items in our working memory at any time. However, we can only process between two and four items simultaneously. Even more challenging, information not used within as little as fifteen seconds is lost from memory unless later reinforced or reintroduced.
Our task is to monitor and manage the cognitive load our students experience in their working memory while learning. We need to pay attention to the pace, nature, and amount of information students must hold in their working memory and process at any time during their learning efforts. Additionally, we must avoid presenting them with too much information and risk having important information being ignored and abandoned while other, less salient elements receive attention.
Further, when students are asked to deal with large amounts of complex information, they are likely to experience frustration and growing anxiety. These and other distracting emotions increase cognitive load and can interfere with optimal brain functioning.
Our challenge is to maximize learning by managing cognitive load while helping students to focus on what matters most and what needs to be processed and moved to long-term memory. Fortunately, there are several instructional and contextual strategies we can tap to support this goal. Here are ten tools and techniques we can employ:
- Discuss the purpose and utility of what students are asked to learn. Knowing what is important—and why—can help students focus their working memory on what is crucial and needs to be stored in long-term memory.
- Focus on clear, specific, attainable goals. Students are more likely to engage and persist when they see goals within reach if they give reasonable effort.
- Develop and follow routines that support learning. Routines reduce surprises and uncertainty, thus lessening dependence on working memory and freeing space to accept and manage new information.
- Help students to make connections with what they already know. Point out and review past learning on which students can build new learning. Also, invite students to reflect on what they already know and where they can make connections.
- Break down complex information and introduce new content in small bites. Scaffold challenging content to build student learning capacity and confidence.
- Introduce information via multiple modes. Combining text, visual, and auditory input can enhance understanding and lessen the cognitive load students experience. Adding movement and other kinesthetic elements to the learning experience can be even more beneficial.
- Provide graphic organizers. Mind maps, T-charts, and other supports can help students organize new information and increase recall when information has been moved to long-term memory.
- Minimize distractions in the learning environment. Excessive noise, visual distractions, and materials unrelated to the learning task can compete for attention and increase cognitive load.
- Offer partial solutions to increase focus on the most challenging elements. Providing support in less crucial areas can help students see a path to success without becoming preoccupied by the distracting details and features of the challenge.
- Be cognizant of emotional tone and elements that may compete for students’ attention. Lowering the stakes during initial learning attempts, providing a supportive environment, and encouraging students as they learn can make an important difference in their ability to focus.
Managing cognitive load is an important challenge when introducing new concepts and teaching new skills to our students. However, cognitive load issues are not just for young learners. We, too, need to monitor and manage our own cognitive load as we learn, manage new tasks, and balance multiple responsibilities.