Cognitive Load Theory: how has it changed my teaching?

For the last eighteen months or so, I’ve become absolutely fascinated by cognitive load theory. Slightly too much so if the amount of time I spend on Twitter avidly following other educators’ conversations is an accurate measure. I’m ashamed to say, as a teacher who has just entered their twenty-second year of teaching, that until fairly recently, I was guilty of falling into the trap of believing that if my lessons were ‘jazzy’, that my resources had lots going on on them, they entered the room to music, or they had to hunt for answers stuck up around the room… (I could go on..!) that this would somehow mean that my students would learn more. They would be drawn in by the aforementioned music/slides/general edutainment and hey presto, learning would follow! 

Cognitive Load Theory, along with Rosenshine’s Principles and the work of Sweller, Kirschner and Clarke, have made me take stock of my teaching in a way that nothing else has in over twenty years. The question ‘what are my students going to be THINKING about at each point in this lesson?’ is now the principal thought throughout my lesson planning, resource and retrieval preparation. CLT states that our working memories are limited, and so when, as teachers, we are teaching new content, we need to reduce the load that an entire raft of elements can place on our students’ WM. 

At each step in my planning and execution of lessons I now take into consideration:

  1. Extraneous load – reducing unnecessary distractions. For example, flashing or too many images on a slide; too much text on a slide which I then talk over causing my students’ attention to be split; allowing students to fiddle with equipment (clicking pens on and off, etc..) Of course, there’s nothing I can do about a noisy PE lesson outside, classroom visitors or, because I don’t have my own classroom, overly-busy, bright and text-heavy displays competing for my students’ attention, although the latter is certainly a conversation I’ve begun to have in my school!

2. Intrinsic load – planning for the correct level of difficulty of explanations/questioning/deliberate practice. Robert and Elizabeth Bjork spoke about ‘desirable difficulties’ – finding that sweet spot that means that students are not using valuable space in their working memory to make sense of tasks that are too hard, but equally, are not too easy, resulting in too little effortful thinking on their part, meaning that new content is less likely to find its way into their long term memory. All of my classes across key stage 3 and 4 are mixed ability. So finding a common level of desirable difficulty can be tricky. As a result, I teach to the top, but I plan for a variety of questions pitched at different levels which I will pose to different students with different levels of prior attainment. In addition, during the deliberate practice phase of my lessons, I will provide scaffolding such as sentence starters, key terms on the board or model answers on different topics for low prior attainment students to enable them to free up as much of their working memory as possible and avoid using it all trying to make sense of the task rather than making sense of the new material.

3. Germaine load – the effort required and load placed on a student’s WM in order to make sense of new information will be far less if they have already built up a web of prior knowledge (their schema) to link it to. So when teaching new material, I carefully pick material that we have already previously covered as my retrieval activity at the start of the lesson, and build upon this in my questioning and instruction. This enables me to ‘hook’ the new content to their existing schema. When previously covered content is brought to mind in light of new content, the new content is more likely to ‘stick’ to the existing knowledge in their LTM. For example, in a recent year seven lesson on six figure grid references, my retrieval practice activity consisted of some questions where students were required to use four figure grid references. It’s pretty near impossible to understand six figure grid references without being able to do four figure first, so by calling to mind the first skill, I was better able to build on my students’ prior knowledge rather than teaching the new skill in isolation. In addition, where possible, I will make reference to examples from within their own experience (although this can vary wildly within a class) so that again, ever-increasingly complex links can be built within their long term memory. For example, in a recent year 8 lesson on hurricanes, in order for the class to grasp the concept of the Coriolis Effect, I discussed and questioned the students about the reason bath water rotates around the plug hole as it drains away. (The spin of the Earth being the cause of both!) Having this prior knowledge meant the new knowledge about the Coriolis Effect was more likely to stick. 

4. Planning and delivery of feedback. I haven’t marked a set of exercise books in the traditional way (detailed written comments, all pages marked) for almost two years. My school has fully embraced verbal feedback, and we are free to choose the methods that we feel are best for our subjects and classes. No non-negotiables! So in planning for effective feedback, most of which is now immediate in the lesson whilst the thinking is still taking place, I consider what it is I want the students to achieve, be it completing an accurately-drawn bar chart/a high quality 9 mark GCSE answer/a description of a graph. I ensure that I plan feedback that allows students to see where they can improve and move forward. I might choose from live marking under the visualiser, live marking whilst I circulate, live modelling under the visualiser or whole class verbal feedback sheets for an exam answer or assessment. Each method makes the student THINK and allows them to be SHOWN HOW to improve, along with dedicated time to make the required improvements. Written marking, however, takes place after the event, and students are passive in the process, often resulting in the same errors being repeatedly made. 

Despite teaching for over twenty years, I know I still have much to learn, and I am the first to admit that I don’t always get it right. However, I can honestly say I think the profession is in an extremely exciting place at the moment. For me, getting to grips with CLT has fundamentally changed my focus of my lesson planning, execution and feedback. It has reduced my workload as I am now planning for thinking that leads to learning rather than the next jazzy task which takes an age to prepare and which might, at worst, hinder the progress of my students. Daniel Willingham’s often-quoted ‘memory is the residue of thought’ from his book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ sums up my new approach perfectly. Let’s plan for thinking rather than for entertainment, schema-building over time rather than fleeting, never-to-be-revisited moments and let’s view learning as a long-term process rather than singular, unrelated ‘events’. 

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2 Comments

  1. Really interesting article! I am leading a staff meeting on memory and cognitive theory so the practical classroom ideas are very helpful. Thank you!

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