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14 December 2020
By Zoe Enser

Making the Best Use of Cognitive Load Theory in the English Classroom

Classrooms are exceptionally busy places. Students are bombarded with information from all around them, from their peers to the environment to the information from their teachers. Each task we ask students to complete has a number of intrinsic difficulties (the knowledge needed, the required processes, the synthesis of data from a number of sources held in students’ working memory) and for a long time I would struggle to understood why some students could sail through a task. When I was introduced to the research of John Sweller in the last few years, things started to fall into place. I began to have a clearer understanding of what was presenting a barrier to some students and how I could ensure that they were more successful in the class. Here are a few things I started to do in my classroom.

1. Break Information into Manageable Chunks

I have always been aware of how much information I gave students in terms of my explanation and instruction. Too much and they would switch off. Too little and they would not have the tool they need to move forward. However, I still don’t think I always got this right and on reflection I sometimes would overwhelm students with information and not give them enough time to consolidate before the next steps. Now when planning, I consider more carefully how much information they are given in different phases of the lesson, whether that is in a text, a video or another form of explanation. I provide more opportunities to check understanding or for consolidation of their learning (more on this later). I am also more aware of the intrinsic load of the information, so will adapt accordingly when they are tackling more challenging material. So, for example, when studying something which we know is placing greater demands on our students’ understanding, I will break details down further. This means with something like Shakespeare, I am going to progress more slowly and take more time to embed details than if I were reading a text such as An Inspector Calls by J.B Priestley.

2. Quality of Explanation

As well as encouraging me to think about the amount of information I am giving students, an understanding of cognitive load also encouraged me to think about the quality of my explanations. Was I wandering from the point or illustrating the ideas with examples which added an extra layer of extraneous load or was it supporting their understanding? That didn’t mean I stripped out the analogies and metaphors I used. In fact, in some instances I added them, knowing that in order to explain that complex idea, students need something more concrete to link to. Knowing about this helped to refine this aspect of my instruction and think more proactively about what my students did, and didn’t, need. Sometimes it was easy to lose the focus, especially when I had always explained something in a particular way.

In addition, I began to use elements of dual coding, including capturing ideas on the board for them and noting down key points as well as adding visuals. I am more careful too to make sure that everything added to the core information really did aid understanding, not distract from it. If in any doubt, I wouldn’t use it. I could always add later if needed, layering details over a lesson or a series of lessons.

3. Check, Check and Check Again

They say that one of the most significant things about the practice of the most effective instructors is the number of questions they ask. I have always asked lots of questions in my teaching, but I am now aware that sometimes I would be inadvertently adding to students’ cognitive load, firing questions thick and fast. My knowledge of cognitive load means I have become more forensic in my approach, planning questions more carefully, as opposed to a scattergun approach. I have a clearer idea of the information I really want to stick with the learners and spend a lot of time checking it from different angles and returning to key points regularly to ensure it has really been learnt. The better embedded this knowledge, the more I can add to the load of the students and push them to do more with it.

This also means I am checking more for misconceptions. If these were not addressed and dispelled, they could increase the load of students as they hold on to any false information which could take them off in the wrong direction. Unpacking misconceptions and unpicking false learning is hard, and time needs to be given over to this.

4. Include Pause Points and Time to Consolidate

As well as lots of opportunities to check understanding whilst new information is being introduced, I now provide more time for students to consolidate learning. I use generative strategies, such as summary, self-testing, and mapping to ensure students have time to think deeply before moving on. This might mean getting them to use systems such as Cornell Notes to record information, think about key information in the question/key point section and summarise their learning. Sometimes this will take place during pause points in the instruction, or after the lesson to ensure that they have retained the most important information and have been given a structured opportunity to really embed their learning before we move on. Again, layering up information piece by piece will ensure students are challenged but not overloaded with new knowledge or tasks.

5. Make the Abstract Concrete

Just as with use of images and analogies to give students something concrete to understand, I have made greater, and better use of modelling. Everything from sentence openers, to whole essays or narratives, I model the processes needed to be able to complete a task. This enables them, to not only see then end product, as with exemplars, but also to see the steps they needed to take to get there. This reduces the load they are under and allows them to think carefully about each step as we encounter it. Again, I would sometimes break this process down, modelling an opening paragraph for them, getting them to attempt their own and then returning to the next step together. Small steps all the way.

I also make my thinking explicit here, so they know why I am making certain choices and how I draw on my knowledge to achieve this.

Modelling of reading and note taking is another important element and again supports students cognitive load as it also becomes necessary to break things into smaller components in order to demonstrate this.

6. Provide Scaffolds

The models I use, not only show students the processes clearly, but it also provides them with a scaffold for their own work. They can return to a model, with annotations, and check their own progress through the steps. Having it clearly in front of them, reduces what they need to hold in their working memory and reduces their cognitive load.

In addition, having access to key words and sentence stems are effective in providing a scaffold for students to craft their own work, or deepen their own thinking.

7. Increase Retention and Fluency

When we encourage students to practise certain things over and again, we are encouraging automaticity and ensuring students have knowledge at their fingertips or at the front of their minds when they need this. We see this in Maths all the time, where quick retrieval of times tables or number bonds leads to them begin able to recall them quickly and user them in an agile way. I don’t think we always employ this as well in English. This level of automaticity and fluency means their working memory is not in play and their cognitive load is reduced and they can use this embedded information to tackle ever greater challenges. We can reduce their load by giving them times table prompts or support sheets, but again this will mean time is spent searching for that information. We see that a lot in open book exams for literature where students spend an achingly long time looking up a quote or rereading a passage. The more information about a text or process they have available to them with relative ease, the less strain is placed on their working memory. Building retrieval and deliberate practice of these elements into our lessons will support this process and mean they can really get on to the interesting ideas rather than being stuck on the basics.

8. Strip out the Excess

Extraneous load can be a problem and some of it is beyond our control. Classrooms can be full of distractions, with even the smallest sound providing a distraction, not to mention what is going on in the minds of our students. We can’t guarantee they aren’t thinking about last lesson or what they are doing later in the day splitting their attention. However, with my new awareness of cognitive load I now aim to control those things I can. How I organise my class, what I use in the displays, including what I have on their desks, should support their working memory and not add to the extraneous load. I focus on routines to ensure students are working hard on the areas I want them to work hard on, as opposed to sifting their way through additional information and trying to work out what is needed of them. That includes additional words on worksheets, images on slides which are not supporting their focus on the key points and reinforcing the main ideas, and the noise level in the room. If we are thinking hard, we usually need quiet to do so. How you achieve this will depend on your classrooms, but it is well worth considering what this means in your context.

Dylan Wiliam has famously claimed that cognitive load theory is ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know'. I would agree that an understanding of this, and how we can support working and long-term memory is significant as we consider how to provide the best learning opportunity for all of our learners.

Further Reading

Cognitive Load Theory and its Application in the Classroom by Dominic Shibli and Rachel West.

Cognitive Load Theory: Research that Teachers Really Need to Understand.

Cognitive Load Theory in Action by Ollie Lovell.

If you would like more detail on how you can use these theories in your English classes or school, please get in touch via email.