Reducing Cognitive Load on Students During Lessons

The human mind has an incredible active working memory where thinking and learning occur. It’s a dynamic process where new information is integrated with existing knowledge in long-term memory.

However, our active working memory has limitations and can only hold three to five items for a short duration of 10 to 20 seconds. This limited capacity is known as cognitive load and can impede learning.

When students experience excessive cognitive load, they may struggle to retain new information in their working memory or lack the mental space to encode it into long-term memory. This can result in the inability to recall previously learned material.

As educators, we can address this challenge by focusing on two key areas.

Area 1: Reduce Extraneous Cognitive Load

Extraneous cognitive load refers to any non-essential information or tasks that do not contribute to the learning process or memory retention. By identifying and eliminating these elements, we can enhance learning. Here are some strategies:

– Provide clear instructions for assignments and ensure students have access to necessary resources.

– Modify assignments to match students’ capabilities and prior knowledge.

– Limit the number of submission formats for student work.

– Focus on the quality of homework assignments rather than the quantity.

– Create a conducive work environment by reducing unnecessary noise and visual distractions in the classroom.

– Employ effective presentation techniques, such as simplifying text and visuals, avoiding excessive text on slides, and providing clear verbal cues.

– Foster a sense of belonging and inclusivity among students to minimize cognitive load related to identity and social factors.

Area 2: Use Scaffolds to Reduce Demands on Working Memory

Scaffolds act as support structures that allow students to offload some cognitive load onto external resources. These scaffolds should be temporary and gradually phased out as students develop their skills. Here are some examples:

– Provide visual planning sheets for organizing thoughts during writing or problem-solving tasks.

– Allow students to have note cards with quotations or formula sheets for certain assignments.

– Encourage the creation of temporary help sheets for challenging concepts or problem-solving strategies.

– Use single-column rubrics to guide students in planning and assessing their work throughout a project.

– Begin new topics with short activities that activate prior knowledge and facilitate connections to the new material.

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