In the part one of this post, we discussed the concepts of working memory and cognitive load to help explain how cognitive overload occurs. This post suggests some practical strategies teachers can use to reduce cognitive load so a student can meet a curricular outcome that might otherwise be too complex or overwhelming.
Strategy 1 – Build on Prior Knowledge
It is easier to understand new things and remember them later when they are explicitly connected to prior knowledge. Common tools for making overt connections include KWL charts, mindmaps, brainstorming, anticipation guides, and cloze procedures. Tools that help students explicitly think about what they already know before the new learning begins are particularly helpful if a new procedure or concept is built on pre-requisite information or skills. If you know a task is going to be difficult, start with either a formal pre-assessment to see what your students know or a prior knowledge activity they helps them demonstrate their thinking. Either way you’ll be better able to start where they are and connect to what they know.
Strategy 2 – Think carefully about your content
Make mental space for the complex generative load by reducing the essential and extraneous load. Consider what you were about to teach and break it into what it essential and what is nice to know. Remove anything extra including distractions like lots of visual details, cool additional facts, and extra elaboration. It is a lot like de-cluttering a room by taking everything out, then only putting back essential items. Remember clutter is not just content, it includes anything the brain needs to make sense of like sounds, moving images, or complex vocabulary.
Once you’ve reduced your extraneous load, make the essential load as explicit and simple as possible. Make that information easy to process by moving away from dense text. Leave lots of white space on the page, and use text features to make the ideas easy to scan, like headings and bullets. Consider making simple memory tools like diagrams, graphic organizers, or a bookmark with the key facts. When you distill something to a few key steps or ideas and then leave a visual up to remind learners of the steps or ideas, you reduce cognitive load while still helping students learn new things.
Strategy 3 – Take small bites (chunking)
One of the best ways to reduce the load of a task is to organize the task or idea into small bits or chunks. Sometimes chunking can apply to the visual look of content on the page, or to small groups of information a student must learn. Chunks are most effective when they are a small unit of elements that are directly related and a complete thought. Having students pay attention to just one small group of things at a time makes it much more likely they can process the information and use it.
Strategy 4 – Scaffold and support
As much as possible, use the same structures and processes when presenting new information, so the brain doesn’t need to spend any effort deciphering the process and can just focus on the generative learning. The more automatic the process, the less load is needed to do the task. That is why breaking in time is hard when you are learning to drive and automatic most of the time as an experienced driver. The more places a student has automaticity, the easier it is to carry the load of the new task.
You can also help by providing other supports. A student just learning English does much better with a vocabulary list and visuals than she does with just an oral presentation. Similarly a student struggling to write an essay will do much better with frame or formula to add ideas into, or a scribe to writing things down.
One of the most important reasons we need teachers to help us learn is that they are intermediaries with the content and skills. As teachers, there is a lot we can do to make the process of learning more effective by reducing the cognitive load when we know we are about to teach something hard.