My brain hurts…cognitive load


Photo by Alain Picard, Flickr

I’ve been reading a bit about cognitive load theory lately. My interest was first sparked by an article in Time magazine which discussed a study by neuroscientist Sylvia Morelli and psychologist Matt Lieberman, in which the participants looked at images of sad or happy people:

either when they were free to focus on them completely or when they were trying to memorise an eight-digit number…Consistently, the people operating under that so-called cognitive load showed reduced empathy reactions…People with uncluttered brains processed—and felt—things more deeply.

I then found a video of a keynote lecture by Professor John Sweller, who developed cognitive load theory. He has a recent book as well, but I thought the video would be a good introduction. In the 45 minute lecture, Sweller gives a summary of the principles of cognitive load theory and describes some of its effects. Below I note some of the points that he makes.

The principles of cognitive load theory

Information store principle

An enormous store of information is held in long term memory. We tend to overlook this store of information in education, but it’s central to how we learn, think and process information. Studies of chess grand masters have shown that their prowess is because they have memorised tens of thousands of board configurations.  The reason it takes years to become a chess grand master is due to the huge feat of memorisation required. Sweller says that exactly the same principles apply to everything we teach in any classroom at any level – we are good at something because of what’s in our long term memory, and that is the basis of skill.

Borrowing and reorganising principle

How do you get information into long term memory? Sweller says it’s by borrowing it from other people. We imitate what others do, listen to what they say, and read what they write.

Randomness as genesis principle

Where does information come from in the first place? When solving an unfamiliar problem, we use a long, slow and laborious process of testing things out.

Narrow limits of change principle

Working memory is where we process new information that we haven’t stored in long term memory. Working memory is limited in capacity. There is some dispute on how many units of information it can contain, but it’s thought to be between 2-3 to 8-9 units. Working memory is also limited in duration. You can hold something in working memory for about 20 seconds, unless you keep refreshing it e.g. by repeating it to yourself. So working memory has huge limitations.

Environmental organising and linking principle

This principle explains how we use information – not just gather and store it. To be honest, I’m a bit hazy on this part – I don’t think Sweller fully explained it in the keynote, and the reading I’ve done isn’t very helpful either. So if you know what this principle describes, please let me know!

Cognitive load effects

Sweller and others have studied cognitive load effects, one of which is the worked example effect. Students who are given some information, some problems to solve and some worked examples do much better in tests than students who are only given the information and problems. This is because using a worked example reduces working memory load.

What does all this mean in practice?

I realise that cognitive load theory has developed beyond what I’ve described, but in the interests of my own cognitive load, and yours, I’ll stop there!

The ideas I’ve had after this brief look at cognitive load theory are:

  • There are no shortcuts to developing competency. It takes time.
  • Sweller’s slides were very plain. They were black text on a white background, with hardly any images and hardly any words. Was this to reduce cognitive load?
  • Think about how to reduce students’ cognitive load. This blog has some useful ideas.
  • Is some of this at odds with techniques for student engagement? Do some learning activities increase cognitive load?
  • For my own professional development, while I’m interested in many fields and how they influence learning and teaching, maybe I should just focus on a few areas and not flit around like a butterfly.

Tea cups, snowflakes and crispies


Photo by James Norton

I recently read this article, where psychologist Wendy Mogel describes new university students as ‘tea cups’ –students who are fragile and can’t handle adversity- and ‘crispies’ – students who are burnt out from studying too much and no longer enjoy learning.  I’ve also heard university students described as ‘snowflakes’ – students who consider themselves unique, fragile and deserving of special treatment.

While I understand that students need support with the transition to university, I get annoyed with generalisations like this. Are new university students really less resilient and more burnt out than in the past? This categorisation of students reminds me of labels such as ‘generation Y’ and ‘digital natives’. Jim Bright calls such generational tags ‘simplistic and insulting’.

Sue Bennett and Karl Maton found that:

…generations of students have been regularly described as fundamentally dissimilar…and are ascribed different characteristics. Indeed, moral panics over ‘new’ students are a recurrent phenomenon in education (Hickox & Moore 1995). During the late 19th century, for example, the expansion of formal state education was accompanied by concerns over the entry of middle-class and female students (Lowe 1987).  (Bennett and Marton, 2010, p322).

Bennett and Maton’s review of research into ‘digital natives’ shows that while some technology-based activities are common among young people, others are not, and such familiarity cannot be assumed.

Perhaps these tags help university teachers talk about their students, but I don’t think they are helpful in treating students respectfully, as individuals.

Exams, what are they good for?

Having four exams at the end of every semester was my least favourite part of university. The stress, the anxiety, the cramming…I still occasionally have nightmares that I’m taking an exam, and wake feeling relieved that I never have to take another one, ever.

Photo by Nick Southall, Flickr

Photo by Nick Southall, Flickr

Why do we have exams? The main reasons seem to be convenience and to minimise plagiarism. Yet exams are not completely cheat-proof, as seen in the recent case of the French woman who tried to take her daughter’s exam.

In discussing assessment, Biggs and Tang argue:

How important is the format of assessment? In a word: very. …In preparing for exams, students use memorisation-related activities and for assignments, application-related activities (Tang 1991). (p 226)

And they go on to say that although exams have possible benefits for student learning, such as forcing students to review an entire subject and possibly see it as a whole, there are also several downsides.

One of these downsides is mentioned above – that exams encourage students to memorise. In addition, test anxiety is common and can impact on exam performance. And finally, students don’t usually receive feedback on their exams, other than their grade.

If we want students to take a deep approach to their learning then assessment needs to be constructively aligned with subject learning outcomes. In other words, if you want your students to be able to effectively manage patient airways in a medical emergency, you don’t assess that via a written exam.

Ok, maybe that was an obvious example, but it’s hard to argue that written closed-book exams are an authentic type of assessment for any subject. In the documentary Make me…smart Professor Robert Sternberg says:

In real life there’s no one who gives you a problem and says the answer is a, b, c or d. In real life, you have to figure out what the problem is. Then you have to figure out some ways of solving the problem and then you have to figure out whether any of those solutions are any good.

There are plenty of possible alternatives to exams but I don’t think we’ll be seeing the end of exams anytime soon. For one thing, students taking MOOCs who wish to gain credit for their studies often need to take an invigilated exam.