Tips for Minimizing the Cognitive Load on Students in Class

Our active working memory is fascinating. It is the place where thinking occurs. New information is integrated with existing information in our long-term memory and processed. Some of the processed information is then stored back into our long-term memory, which is how we learn.

However, our active working memory also poses a significant challenge to learning. Research indicates that it can only hold three to five items for a duration of 10 to 20 seconds. This limited capacity of our active working memory is known as cognitive load.

If the total cognitive load on students is too high, learning becomes difficult or even impossible. There are two possible scenarios: either their working memory is unable to hold all the new information at once, or they have enough capacity to hold and process the information but lack the extra space to store it in their long-term memory. This often results in students being able to perform a task in class but struggling to recall or apply it later. If information hasn’t been stored in long-term memory, it hasn’t truly been learned.

As a classroom teacher, you may be familiar with these scenarios. So, what can you do about it? There are two areas where you can start to make a difference.

Area 1: Reduce Extraneous Cognitive Load

Extraneous cognitive load refers to anything that is not essential to the learning task or does not contribute to its retention in long-term memory. It is important to be vigilant and eliminate any unnecessary cognitive load. Here are some examples:

Provide clear instructions for assignments, especially homework. Take the time to ensure clarity, considering that students are novices while you are an expert. Keep the following details in mind to make assignments clear and simple:

  • Number each step.
  • Ensure easy access to all necessary resources.
  • Adjust assignments if necessary knowledge and skills are lacking.
  • Evaluate the different ways students can submit their work and limit them.

According to research, the quality of homework assignments is more important than the quantity. Integrate assignments with what is being taught in class rather than treating them as separate tasks.

Create a conducive work environment by minimizing unnecessary noise in the classroom. If you choose to play music, consider that it may add extraneous cognitive load for some students. Have conversations with your students to understand what works best for them.

Avoid visual clutter in your classroom. Every item should serve a purpose rather than mere decoration. Display fewer things at a time and rotate them throughout the year. Is there anything unnecessary that you can remove from your room?

When presenting slides, follow Rich Mayer’s principles of multimedia learning:

  • Provide only essential information relevant to the topic.
  • Use humor sparingly and ensure it aligns with the main ideas.
  • Offer verbal cues to guide students’ focus.
  • Reduce the amount of text on slides to avoid cognitive overload.
  • Avoid reading out slides and encourage students to read the text independently.

Foster a sense of belonging for each student. Acknowledge and validate their identity, create a safe and trusting environment, and make them feel that their unique story holds value in your class. Work to eliminate any threats to their identity and nurture their social and academic belonging.

For various reasons, many students may have their active working memory occupied by thoughts unrelated to your class. Therefore, the work we do to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is crucial. Teachers must be aware of its impact on working memory and cognitive load, ultimately affecting learning outcomes. Establish routines and rituals that promote a positive classroom culture and build relationships from the start.

Area 2: Use Scaffolds to Reduce Demands on Working Memory

Scaffolds are helpful tools that allow students to offload some of their cognitive load onto paper, reducing the amount of “new stuff” they need to hold in their working memory. Scaffolds should be used temporarily and phased out over time, although some students may still require them occasionally. Here are some examples:

Use visual planning sheets to organize thoughts for writing or to outline steps for a math problem. Explain to students that writing things down frees up space in their working memory for deeper thinking.

Allow students to have a note card with quotations during the first essay of the year to focus on essay mechanics. Provide an explanation for this approach.

Have students create temporary help sheets for challenging verb tenses in Spanish.

Permit the use of an equation sheet at the beginning of a physics unit.

Implement a single-column rubric during the planning stage, check-ins, and project completion to simplify the assessment process.

Start each topic with short activities to help students connect prior knowledge and experiences to the new material, rather than making assumptions or leaving it to chance.

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