No one wants to be in a class that they find difficult to understand. As an educator, it’s important to have an effective means of simplifying courses for your students. Minimizing cognitive load in the classroom means effectively breaking down new information for your students in an easy-to-understand format.
If students are struggling to understand what you’re saying, it’s probably because they’re overwhelmed by the amount of new information they have to cram into their heads. When you reduce your students’ cognitive load by simplifying what you’re teaching them, you make it easier for them to participate in the classroom.
The simpler you make your courses, the lesser your students’ cognitive load and the higher the chance they will engage with the class. In this article, we’ll define cognitive load and discuss how to effectively reduce it to maximize participation and comprehension in your class.
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Your cognitive load is the amount of new information your brain can retain at a particular time. Our brain, like any memory device, has a maximum capacity for information that it can hold; if we overload it, it rejects the new information.
When you are introduced to a new topic, your brain processes it so that you understand what it stands for and can use it in the future. When you transfer large files into your brain, like any memory device, it slows down and takes a long time to accommodate what you’re sending or not store it at all.
That is how our brain works; it is easier for us to process things in bits and pieces rather than cramming massive amounts of information into it all at once. We use our working memory (short-term memory) to process information when learning new things. It takes about 15 seconds or less for your brain to categorize it as irrelevant if you don’t practice it.
Our brain does not like saving and learning entirely new things, especially if it cannot associate them with something you already know. As an educator, this should give you a hint that when introducing a new concept, you should break it down in a way that is not too foreign to your students.
Because of how our short-term memory works, if something is vague and unfamiliar, our brain simply labels it as junk and separates it from things you’d remember.
For example, on your mobile phone, you have folders for various things and when you take a picture, your phone automatically saves it in its gallery. However, if you take a blurry image, your device may automatically flag it as a junk file.
The most common cause of cognitive overload in classrooms is overwhelming your students with unfamiliar information.
Students experience cognitive overload when you overwhelm them with lots of information within a short time frame. It is easy for students to become overwhelmed in a classroom where they have multiple unrelated topics.
The amount of new information they need to comprehend and retain to participate in the class becomes a burden rather than a lesson.
Having to process too many unrelated things makes it difficult to understand what they need to focus on, increasing cognitive load. Having a lesson plan that clearly states how your classes will proceed is a good way to address this.
Another common cause of high cognitive load is the introduction of complex concepts without properly breaking them down. It’s difficult to remember something when you don’t understand it.
The learning process works by first understanding, then practicing, and it becomes part of your long-term memory. Introducing complex concepts in bite-size chunks reduces students’ cognitive load as they digest the information step by step.
Cognitive overload also happens when students are given insufficient information to complete a task. Of course, when your students will hit a stumbling block when they attempt to solve the problem using the inadequate information they have.
The most logical thing for them to do to finish the task is to look for more information that will assist them in finishing it quickly. As a result, they overload their brain with information that increases their cognitive load.
To ensure that students understand and retain new information effectively, make sure that the new information or task they are to complete does not exceed their cognitive load. Here’s how to assess your students’ cognitive load and determine how much is too much for them to handle.
The level of participation in your classroom can help determine how well you’re students are processing new information.
If your students are very present in the classroom, asking you questions about the topic, it’s an indication that they are not overwhelmed. But if they’re just staring at you and nodding mindlessly, they’re probably tired of all the new information you’re bombarding them with.
It’s natural to want to get through as much information as possible when your students are enjoying the class but you have to be cautious.
Regardless of how interesting the new information is, students need to take a break to understand what they are learning so that they can properly process, store, and refer to it in the future. So piling information on top of information because you believe the class is responsive is a bad strategy.
You can tell how well your students are absorbing what you’re teaching them by the number and type of questions they ask in your classroom.
If they keep asking the same question about a concept, it’s probably because they don’t understand it. However, if the questions are outside of what you’re teaching and require you to explain the concept thoroughly, it could be because they find it interesting and are curious to know more.
Always read the room when teaching students; just because they’re asking questions in class doesn’t mean you’re not overloading them with information. The type of question they ask can indicate whether they are overwhelmed or genuinely enjoying the class.
Explaining foreign concepts is a step-by-step process; if you introduce them into your classroom too quickly, they will get confused. Your students will ask questions, and answering them too quickly will only lead to more confusion.
Are they asking you questions because they are confused or because they are interested in the class? It can be difficult to distinguish at times, but the nature of the question makes it easier to determine why your student is asking questions in class.
When your students continue to ask questions that indicate they are confused about the topic you’re teaching, break it down into small pieces. Then connect it to the information they already know so it’s easy for them to find it relatable and understand.
Cognitive load has different categories and each comes to play depending on the task.
The cognitive load theory was developed by John Sweller in the 1980s. These are some of the theories he proposed:
According to the cognitive load theory, there are three forms of cognitive loads – Instrinic, Germane and Extraneous.
Intrinsic cognitive load simply means that the task or information you’re conveying is difficult to complete or understand. This is because the concept you’re teaching is pretty hard for your students to find relatable.
A good example is teaching multiplication to students who have never multiplied anything before. Some of your students may understand it without you having to break it down, but keep in mind that most classrooms have a mix of abilities.
Instead of simply telling your students to multiply, break it down into addition that they are already familiar with.
It’s the amount of cognitive load it takes to process information. This is the cognitive load you require to link new information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory.
Comprehension occurs when both your short-term and long-term memory connect. So, when students have prior knowledge of a topic, incorporating new knowledge becomes easier. Rather than starting from scratch, it is more like building on a foundation.
However, if they do not have prior knowledge of the concept, they may have difficulty processing the information. Your students may not remember it because their short-term memory was unable to connect it to their long-term memory.
Simply put, their brain labeled the information as junk because it had no link to what they already knew.
Extraneous cognitive load occurs when information is not presented or broken down in a way that’s easy to understand. So it’s not that the concept is particularly difficult or foreign; rather, you’re not breaking down the topic in a way that your students can easily digest.
You can’t time travel to introduce the concept to your students before the class, but you can control how you break down information for your students. Explain concepts to your students in such a way that even in the first class on a topic, there is immediate understanding.
As an educator, you have control over how the information is presented so that it does not appear too difficult or foreign by simplifying it to the most fundamental level and relating it to everyday concepts.
If you can effectively manage extraneous cognitive load, both intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load will be manageable for your students.
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There are several strategies you can use to help reduce your students’ cognitive workload, especially if it is germane or extraneous.
Asking questions in class can help you engage your students, but the type of question you ask is also important. Ask questions that are directly related to what you’re teaching.
Also, ask them these questions at regular intervals to see if your students truly understand the topic or if they’re just there because they can’t leave.
Some topics are undeniably complex but ensure the questions you’re asking aren’t further complicating the concept.
People are visual creatures who respond far more to what they see than what they hear. Using simple illustrations is far more effective than explaining verbally.
Mix visuals into your lesson notes, and always break up lessons with illustrations when giving explanations in your classrooms. However, don’t overdo it; too many illustrations can be distracting.
In addition to asking specific questions, review the topic before the class ends. This recap refreshes your students’ memories.
Also, a class discussion about a new topic will provide you with insight into how your students perceive this concept.
Doing a back-and-forth discussion while still introducing a concept can be exhausting for most students, so discuss at the end of class instead. That way, you can easily correct a mistake without increasing your students’ cognitive load.
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Create a lesson plan that will assist your students in understanding topics in-depth without overwhelming them. When writing a lesson note for your students, avoid using far-fetched illustrations; if they aren’t directly related to the topic, leave them out.
Another thing you can do is include breaks in your lesson plans to give your students time to process and assimilate information. But don’t take breaks sporadically, strategically place them when your students will need them.
You should also limit the length of the break; if it is too long, your students may find it difficult to return to the classroom. It should also not be too brief; if it is, your students will not have enough time to refresh their memories, and you will end up overwhelming them.
As an educator, there are a variety of reasons why your students may have a cognitive overload. It could be a result of trying to grasp too much information at once, dealing with complex concepts, or trying to process very foreign information.
Following principles such as writing a clear and concise lesson plan, including illustrations, thoroughly explaining a new concept, and so on are effective ways to reduce cognitive load in your classroom.
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