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Classroom Management, Education Trends, Equity Resources, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Oct 2, 2022

Help students do more with less effort using cognitive load theory

By Jennifer Brinkmeyer

7th-12th Grade ELA

Help students do more with less effort using cognitive load theory

By Jennifer Brinkmeyer

I used to use “cognitive load” as a sort of shorthand for how mentally taxing a task may be. I was wrong.

I’d say things like,“That task has too much cognitive load,” meaning I thought it was too difficult for students to do. Cognitive load seemed to be like weight in a cart, something to be unloaded when unnecessary or redistributed to keep the cart from tipping over.

In a recent professional development session, the trainer told the group that one of our goals was to mitigate classroom environmental factors in order to increase cognitive load. In general, I had thought we weren’t looking to increase it, just decrease it or only expend it on really important things.

Turns out, both are a little right and a little off-base.

Cognitive load is a learning theory developed by educational psychologist John Sweller. In this theory, our brains are compared to a computer’s working memory. Just as a computer can only hold so much information in its working memory at a time, so can a brain.

This theory has been applied in its fullest sense by instructional designers working with learning management systems online, but it can be applied to in-person instruction too. When considered with intentionality, the three nuanced types of cognitive load addressed in the theory can optimize our students’ learning (and our work).

Listen to my interview with Jennifer Brinkemeyer, this article’s author, as we do a deep dive into what she shares here

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Cognitive load theory includes intrinsic, germane, and extraneous loads. Intrinsic load is the complexity inherent in the content. Instructional designers recognize that most of this load cannot be mitigated. Content load should not be confused with task or assignment load, which are addressed in the next two types.

In germane load, learners are integrating new information into an existing schema. Designers tend to increase this load since it helps ensure learning makes it to long-term memory. Finally, there is extraneous load, which designers seek to eliminate as much as possible. These are the other weights our students carry: distractions (environmental or internal), redundancy of content, and so forth that interfere with deep learning.

Of course, there are many different ways to confront cognitive loads, which can become time-consuming. We can get stuck making too many decisions about what to add or cut and then spend too much time designing what we decided we needed. What follows are the practices I use to manage my time wisely that align with the true definition of cognitive load theory.

Read or review the information with a beginner’s mind

To address intrinsic load, a teacher must uncover what support students need to learn inherently complex content. I have not always reread the texts I was going to teach because I thought I didn’t have the time. Now, it is a non-negotiable investment.

Remembering what it’s like to start in our content not only develops empathy for students, it makes us better teachers. It reveals what prior knowledge or connections we could draw upon, what distinctions and misconceptions will need to be explored, and what examples may help things click for students.

This process saves time by revealing what actually needs to be taught and what could be cut. It gives teachers a sense of logical sequencing and meaningful chunking for a lesson series or unit. It clarifies what is essential to learn and what’s fluff (for more on getting to the essentials, check out These Teachers’ Small Changes Led to BIG Reductions in Their Workload).

Students’ past performances can also guide this work but may lead to a build-up of biases over time where we try to remove inherent load because the students struggled in the prior year. When teachers attempt to mitigate complexity through modifications to the curriculum, what can happen for students is redundancy, a form of extraneous load.

For example, if a student is introduced to a theme like it is a new concept in ninth grade, they may check out of the unit, knowing that they have heard about the theme since elementary school, even if it is a more complex rendition. When scope and sequence across a district are disregarded, students may lose the opportunity to experience the novelty and complexity necessary for authentic learning.

Slow down and interact more

We can manage the struggle of intrinsic load by how we manage germane and extraneous loads too. The chunking and sequencing done with the new information in the prior step will suggest appropriate pacing and order for students to mess around with the new learning. These deliberate interactions with new content increase germane load and lead to deeper processing.

Three typical practices of manipulating content include:

  1. Reflecting and making connections to prior knowledge.
  2. Exploring similar but distinct topics.
  3. Working with examples.

This forms a basic lesson structure — input, manipulation, and integration. In the first step, you find the suitable chunks and sequencing for the new content. Your plan for manipulating that content comes directly from its complexity. This allows you to decide which types of manipulations will be most helpful.

Redundancy can also come up in over-explaining or including more information or activities than is necessary. Most students will start to tune out these experiences, which wastes precious instructional time. It is also detrimental for English learners who are already trying to decipher what’s being said and done in class, let alone whether or not it is actually important.

Finally, you want to know if the students had enough time to integrate the content into their schema–this is found out through your formative assessment (for a deep-dive on streamlined lesson design, check out Uncovering the Hidden Clutter in Your Curriculum so You Can Simplify Lesson Design with Sally Bergquist).

For example, I recently completed a practicum experience with kindergarten English learners to add an ELL endorsement to my license. I took this opportunity to consider cognitive load. The book I was assigned by my cooperating teacher, Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert, could have focused on a lot of different things, like vegetables, the plant cycle, or gardening. These are all related but distinct topics.

I chose the plant cycle so I could get into some basic sequencing, but I also had been assigned to focus on vocabulary. I chose words that were possibly familiar but used in different ways (water and plant as both nouns and verbs), as well as a few other words that would extend throughout their study. During the lesson, we played with the words in a variety of ways: pictures, movements, and the book.

Ultimately, I chose not to include the cute song I found or to bring a real plant in for my lesson, because, while cool, both included way more extraneous detail. We ended with a formative assessment around the target words to see if they had made it to schema, which would help me know if we needed more interaction and play the next day or were ready for new learning.

Do the same thing every day

I’m not saying you can’t spice it up every now and again, but even if you did the same thing every day, a lot is still changing for students, and those changes create an extraneous load. A solid routine is a kindness.

Extraneous load is described as all the applications working in the background on a computer. This makes computers slower, and it certainly makes me slower when my brain has a million tabs open. Think about all of the fluctuations beyond the classroom that come with the students each day.

Family and friend dynamics. What happened in the hallway. What is happening in the news. If they have a phone, every notification. Trauma. How they feel emotionally and physically. Then class comes along, and no two days look the same and how we are doing what we are doing is constantly changing. Finally, take that and multiply it by every teacher they have (even elementary students have a lot of teachers).

I know how difficult it is to be consistent. It can feel like our students are the ones changing every day and we are just trying to keep things stable in spite of it, and we have our own extraneous load affecting us too. Manage as much consistency as you can, but also it doesn’t have to be strong-armed (for more ideas, check out Routines and Procedures).

Do an extraneous load audit. These self-reflective questions may reveal some labor that you and the students don’t need to be doing.

  • How different is your class every day? Both you and the students are expending extra time to keep figuring it out.
  • How many different types of assignments are students being asked to do? Every new type represents new teaching for you and new learning for them.
  • What’s the emotional tone of the class? While you don’t have absolute control over this, what you project is often what you get back. If you are feeling stressed and anxious, the students may too.
  • How messy is the room? Different teachers have different levels of tolerance for this, and so do students. It is worth it to find out how much the classroom itself may be distracting them, especially for students with ADHD, anxiety, or heightened sensitivities.
  • If you polled a random sample of your class, could they explain a routine or procedure you consider consistent? There are students who will always know what’s going on; they also tend to have smaller extraneous loads or be better at managing them. Using a random sample may reveal what needs to be retaught and reinforced.
  • Are students asking the same questions over and over again? Depending on what the question is about, this likely means some sort of load rebalancing is necessary, either the content needs to be chunked, more interactions to generate germane load are needed, or some extraneous distraction (internal or external) or redundancy needs to be addressed.

What about the teacher’s cognitive load?

The above suggestions are around how you can approach the cognitive load of your students, but you have your own cognitive load to consider. For teachers, innate cognitive load is the inherent complexity of the job: the intellectual, physical, and emotional demands of teaching in a system of imperfect humans. For the most part, this load cannot be changed. Acceptance and gratitude can help, so can slowing down your work. Everything can seem pretty urgent at school, but outside of an actual emergency, urgency is a myth, and an important part of white supremacy culture to disrupt.

The germane load is the process of us building our own schema. We are building a schema about content areas, students, and education. These are the important topics to explore for deep professional growth. Make time to reflect on these topics, clarify what’s important, and learn from models.

The extraneous load often gets in the way of delighting in the innate and soaking in the germane. While complete elimination of the extraneous is unlikely, you can make a list to help you reduce distractions (environmental or internal) and redundancy that interferes with your best work. Circle the ones that you can control and focus your energy there.

Truth for Teachers has long emphasized that doing less does not have to be ridden with guilt. If you are looking for a grounded, professional approach, utilizing cognitive load theory may be just what you and your students need.

Listen to my interview with Jennifer Brinkemeyer, this article’s author, as we do a deep dive into what she shares here

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Jennifer Brinkmeyer

7th-12th Grade ELA

Jennifer is currently working with students and teachers on building-wide academic inclusion. Her passion is building literacy supports that include all students.
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