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Cognitive Load isn’t all bad!

How understanding different types of cognitive load can help you learn

Cognitive load relates to the fact that the part of our brains that processes what we are are currently doing, can only deal with a certain amount of information at one time. Often we talk about cognitive load in terms of that negative feeling we get when we are overwhelmed, have too much going on, or are distracted and can’t focus.

Sure that is part of it, but there’s another side of cognitive load which is actually a useful and essential part of the learning process.

To really understand it, we need a quick refresher on the architecture of our brains and how we learn.

We have two primary channels bringing information into our brains: vision and hearing. These senses connect to our working memory — that is, the conscious part of our minds. Meaningful learning requires that we engage in substantial cognitive processing (in both channels) during learning, but the catch is that our capacity for such processing is limited.

During learning, information must be held in our working memory until it has been encoded or processed sufficiently to move into our long-term memory. When too much information floods our brain all at once, our working memory becomes overwhelmed and much of that information is lost.

Why? It’s because although working memory can solve complicated problems, it can’t do too many things at once; it has a finite capacity. This imposes a fundamental constraint on human performance and learning. If you make too many demands on your working memory, you slow down and become less effective at learning.

At any point in time, our cognitive load reflects the current demands on our working memory, which does not have an infinite capacity. High cognitive load is not necessarily a negative situation — but only if what is taking up space in our working memory is directly related to what we are learning and how we are processing that information. We call this intrinsic cognitive load.

Intrinsic cognitive load is related to the inherent difficulty of what you doing as it relates to a learning goal or skill you are trying to master. The intrinsic cognitive load of a task may be higher or lower from one person to another, depending on their prior knowledge. For example, learning to juggle five balls is harder than juggling three.

For a given task and individual at a moment in time, however, intrinsic cognitive load is fixed. It is dependent on the learner’s current level of expertise and can only be altered by changing the nature of what is learned or by the act of learning itself. Depending on prior levels of expertise, a person may find juggling three balls easy, or impossible. If someone (we’ll call him Charlie) has studied and practiced juggling for a month, the task may be easy, and the cognitive load associated with it is low. Charlie might even be able to hold a conversation while juggling.

For someone else (we’ll call her Vanessa), with no experience at all juggling, the intrinsic cognitive load will be higher.

Vanessa most likely will not be able to pay attention to anything else while she tries to juggle. And if she does — even for a fraction of a second — she will probably drop her balls.

As well as the intrinsic cognitive load imposed by a task, there is also cognitive load imposed by the learning environment. This can take two forms: when it is ineffective for learning, it is called extraneous cognitive load. When it is effective for learning it is germane cognitive load. I won’t dwell on the germane type here. It is not an independent source of working memory load. It simply refers to the memory resources devoted to “dealing with” the intrinsic load of a task.

Extraneous cognitive load can be imposed when there is too much information coming into the working memory and it is a challenge to stay focused on the relevant task. Or you may have other things on your mind and can’t devote sufficient working memory to a particular task. Stress, hunger, threats to your identity, and strong emotions, too, are all things which can result in extraneous cognitive load.

Remember, we have a limited amount of space in our working memory. If we are going to learn anything, we must process information in meaningful ways that help move it into our long term memory for later access. And we can’t do that efficiently, or even at all, when valuable space in our working memory is occupied with things not contributing to the learning.

So back to cognitive load and the bad rap it tends to get.

Rather than branding all cognitive load as counterproductive to learning, we need to distinguish between the different types. For learning to be maximized some cognitive load is essential: we need to manage and optimize the intrinsic cognitive load in our learning environments. Extraneous cognitive load, on the other hand, is the enemy of learning. We must strive to reduce it. This means that we must challenge ourselves, but with a manageable amount of information to process in our working memory.

I mentioned earlier that the intrinsic cognitive load imposed by a task is specific to the individual. This is important when we think about directing our own learning. If we engage with tasks which are too easy, we may feel good, but we won’t learn as much. As I wrote about in I’m a Student How Should I Study? learners are not always good at managing their own learning activities. They tend to use ineffective strategies, and can also get tricked into thinking these strategies are effective.

When we design learning experiences and instructional materials for others (or ourselves) we must, of course, work to reduce the extraneous cognitive load imposed. But what we also must do, is to optimize the intrinsic cognitive load. How do we do this? There are many effective techniques and strategies for doing this. Here are just a few ideas:

  1. Organization: Break down content. Sequence content delivery so that sub-tasks are taught individually before being explained together as a whole. The idea is to not overwhelm a student too early on in the introduction of new work.

  2. Increase Complexity Over Time: Practice tasks should gradually grow in variety and complexity — reaching just above the students’ current level of competence. Instructional scaffolding and supports can be used to help those students who may need them.

  3. Focus Problem-Solving Using Worked Examples: A worked example is an already-solved problem with each step fully explained and clearly shown for the students. Novice learners who are given worked examples to study as they are learning new information perform better on subsequent tests than students who are required to solve the equivalent problems themselves (Carroll 1994; Cooper & Sweller 1987; Sweller & Cooper 1985). Unfocused problem-solving places a heavier burden on working memory and imposes an extraneous cognitive load preventing relevant information from being transferred into long-term memory.

  4. Connect to Prior Knowledge: Deeper processing happens when students connect new learning to their prior knowledge in meaningful way. It’s important not to see learning experiences as disjointed — rather the connections and ways that prior knowledge is being built upon and expertise developed, should be clear.

  5. Use Concrete Examples of Abstract Concepts: Use multiple, varied, familiar concrete examples to help explain abstract ideas and make sure students understand which features of the examples are the most important.

Ultimately, the key to addressing intrinsic cognitive load is to make sure it is managed at just the right level to support meaningful learning.

Tasks which are too easy, or too difficult will not have positive effects on learning. If I can already juggle two balls then I should try three, but trying five is not likely to lead to much learning.

To get the best outcomes and have the most efficient learning environments we can’t be afraid of cognitive load. Rather, we must understand it and use it as a tool that enhances learning.

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