Understanding cognitive load to better engage your students
by Amy Byron
You’re driving around in Boston at rush hour on one of the notorious old carriage roads that seemingly twist without reason. You’re searching for a particular street downtown. The kids in the back seat are singing, as loud as they can, along with The Wiggles, which is blasting through the car speakers.
I can’t handle it. What would make this better? Silence. My brain can’t process all of this at once. I’ve maxed out my cognitive load.
Cognitive load is defined as the mental resources used in working memory to perform a task. Most people can store between 5-9 items at any given time, and 2-4 of those can be processed simultaneously. If you don’t use new information within 15 seconds, it gets taken out with the trash.
How can we increase our working memory? Practice makes perfect. This is why teachers go over practice problems and, at the higher levels, assign homework that allows for practice of the new skills learned in lecture. To have students learn effectively, their working memory (ability to store information) must be greater than the total cognitive load of the task. I’m usually at my peak when driving in Boston.
Types of cognitive load
A task can contain many different types of cognitive load. There are three in particular that we as educators should be aware of:
Intrinsic cognitive load
Sometimes a task is just hard. Consider calculus vs. arithmetic. Perhaps you’re great with math and this wouldn’t be a heavy lift for you. For others, this task would require a great deal of mental concentration.
Germane cognitive load
This refers to the actual processing of information. How will we organize it in our brains? Does this information connect with anything we’ve previously learned? Making connections is part of learning, and strengthens knowledge moving forward.
Extraneous cognitive load
This is the part that teachers have the most control over. It is generated by the way the information is presented and has nothing to do with the task. Are you learning calculus in a rock concert or a library? Have you used a PowerPoint slide theme that is distracting or clean?
Strategies to reduce cognitive load
Many teachers already use strategies to reduce the total cognitive load of a task. Some of that is out of our hands (intrinsic cognitive load) and others we can revise for the better (extraneous cognitive load).
Here are some general suggestions:
- Make connections. The more connections to previously learned material that you make, the less germane cognitive load there is for your students.
- Use routine. Start and end class in the same way each day, perhaps with a warm-up and a time for questions. This will allow students to forecast that there will be time for questions to be answered.
- Provide time. Allow students time in class to think about how this new material connects with what was previously taught.
- Be clear and concise.
- Pay attention to purpose. What is the goal of this assignment? If a particular question isn’t getting you there, delete it.
- Don’t forget emotions. Anxiety limits learning, and excess cognitive load creates stress. Allow your students space to focus on the material, not their emotions.
Classroom materials can also have an effect on cognitive load.
How many teachers are guilty of using the same handout semester after semester until it looks like this? The media is crooked, there are streaks across the pages, and it is difficult to read.
Consider moving your media digitally to a platform of your choice so you can clean things up a bit. Cleaning them up is relatively easily done by opening up a PDF in Google Docs. As a caveat, while this works well for the humanities, Google does struggle here in my discipline (chemistry).
Ensure that your media isn’t distracting. Don’t add pictures frivolously. Be sure that the media that you do add contributes toward getting you to your overall lesson goal.
Here are some good rules of thumb to keep in mind for classroom presentations and assignments:
What is your primary goal in this assignment or presentation?
Consider suggestions for reducing extraneous cognitive load.
- Organization and layout
- Clarity of goal
- Breaking down of steps
- Clarity of expectations for student work
- Wordiness and vocabulary
In short, whether you are a teacher or not, you can use the theory of cognitive load to better engage your audience. While you’re creating your next presentation, think about these considerations. Also, if you’re driving in Boston any time soon, be sure to turn down the music.
“Cognitive Load Theory and Classroom Strategies.” Landmark School Outreach Program, The Landmark School
Johnson, Rebecca. “Cognitive Load, Memory, and Instruction.” Innovative Learning Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology.
Lewis, Petra J. “Brain Friendly Teaching—Reducing Learner’s Cognitive Load.” Brain Friendly Teaching , Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, 12 Jan. 2016,
Randall Crosby, Jennifer. “Reducing Cognitive Load: Keep It Simple.” Undergrad Main Site, Stanford University , 5 Feb. 2015.
Shibli, Dominic. “Cognitive Load Theory and Its Application in the Classroom.” chartered.college, 18 June 2018.
Connie Malamed, “What is Cognitive Load” The eLearning Coach, http://theelearningcoach.com/learning/what-is-cognitive-load/