Cognitive load

I have always found the experience of conducting lesson observations and class walkthru’s a learning experience full of insight and an opportunity for engaging in action research. For me lesson observation is not necessarily about observing the teacher but largely about observing the students. After all that is why it is called lesson observation. How authentic the lesson is. Authenticity of the lesson would depend on its relevance, accessible, engaging. Engaging with not just the content at hand bust also using what is learnt in real life.

I will explain the process that I adopt briefly here. The lesson observation for me is being with students from the first lesson of the day to the last lesson of the day. It is more about observing them and not the teacher. As I sit in the class lesson after lesson for two consecutive days, it opens a plethora of opportunities that can trigger off action research opportunities. I have used one such opportunity to observe cognitive load that is placed on the students as they go through lesson after lesson. Recruiting student attention is not easy. Specially when they go through different subjects in quick succession.

Cognitive load theory has developed from the work of Australian educational psychologist John Sweller (1994). It is based on understanding the types of information held in working memory at any one given time. Working memory can be defined as the retention of small amount of  information in a readily accessible form.

Cognitive load has three parts to it. These are known as intrinsic load, extraneous load and germane load. These add up together to make up the capacity of the working memory.

Intrinsic load is related to the inherent difficulty of the subject matter being learnt. Many times, the teacher pitches the lesson at a uniform level to all students without identifying the level they are at, their prior knowledge. This is calledexpert blindness. The teacher assumes that the students are able to understand the new knowledge being shared. For example, understanding the the parts of the circulatory system is less intrinsic load for a high school student then understanding physiology and function of the heart, or 15 x 2 has less intrinsic load than 15.09 x 2.2  for a middle school student.

Unlike intrinsic load, extraneous load  is related to how the information is presented to the students and not its inherent difficulty. Extraneous load is bad for learning because it can hinder the construction of long-term memories. If students have to do additional thinking or their attention is split, learning will be hindered. For example, when their attention is split between reading and listening when a teacher uses a power point with lot of text written  or when someone walks into the class for some administrative task when the teacher is teaching. Cognitive load placed here can distract us or slows us down. Reducing extraneous load is in the hands of  the teacher and is a direct outcome of her lesson planning.

The third type of cognitive load, germane load, is desirable. This is the type of cognitive load that we want. The type of cognitive load that falls, according to Vygotsky, in the zone of proximal development. It is the load placed on working memory that contributes directly to genuine learning leading to the development of long term memory.

Strategies I have used in the past:

  1. During lab activity, list the steps of the experiment on an anchor chart and display. Read out each step, demonstrate if needed and then allow the students to perform each step giving them sufficient time to complete each of them.
  2. Give 5 minutes after every 15 minutes of instruction to complete their notes, refine them, discuss with peers or me if they didn’t understand something.
  3. Write the agenda on the board before the start of the class. Not to restrict their learning but help them form connections between prior knowledge and new, identify key concepts and related concepts, and most important help them place the lesson in the over all scheme, the syllabus. Review the agenda at the end of the lesson. Discuss with students to gauge their understanding, involve them to decide what part may need to be revisited in the next lesson. Essentially, close the loop with them.
  4. Thinking aloud when drawing diagrams on the board,  labeling and annotating them helps them understand better reducing intrinsic and extraneous load.

Last by not the least, review periodically the long term, medium term and short term planning to create better learning opportunities for students.

I am sure we all have our own strategies. Strategies that work in our individual contexts.






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