In this series, we dive into the realm of educational research to help you best formulate effective classroom practice
What simple changes can we make to the design of our lesson resources to ensure that pupils don’t find themselves overwhelmed with information? Let’s find out.
What does the research say?
There are two key theories that have significant implications for the way we present information to our students.
Firstly there’s the cognitive load theory (Sweller, Van Merrienboer, and Paas (1998)) which is concerned with how cognitive resources are used during problem solving and learning. Its key principle is that learners’ working memories are severely limited; once the working memory reaches ‘cognitive overload’, no more learning can take place. By reducing the intrinsic and extraneous load created by the materials we present to students, we can reduce the burden on their working memories helping them to focus on the task in hand.
Secondly, there’s the cognitive theory of multimedia learning - this theory is built around three key assumptions:
- Dual channel assumption - the idea that people have separate channels for processing visual and verbal material
- Limited capacity assumption - the idea that people can process only a limited amount of material in a channel at any one time
- Active processing assumption - the idea that meaningful learning occurs when learners select relevant material, organise it into a coherent structure and integrate it with relevant prior knowledge
Together, these theories identify a series of principles that can help students’ thinking be as focused and effective as possible.
The first of these is the modality effect. To help understand this we need to understand two key components of working memory; the phonological loop, which deals with speech and sometimes other kinds of auditory information, and the visuospatial sketchpad, which holds visual information and the spatial relationships between objects. If too much information flows into either one of these components, the working memory can easily become overloaded.
This can be avoided by presenting information in a mixed format. For example, introducing a concept via an annotated image while narrating over the top makes full use of the two channels of working memory. Instead, learners should be given time to read and process the images before any narration, easing the burden placed on the phonological loop.
Secondly, there’s the split attention effect. When a worksheet consists of a diagram and a separate worked solution the learner is forced to split their attention between two forms of presentation, imposing an unnecessary burden on their working memory load. Presenting students with examples that have diagrams and text solutions carefully integrated with one another helps to prevent this. Similarly, keeping all aspects of a question visible on one page will help reduce unnecessary load.
Finally, there's the redundancy effect, which occurs when learners are presented with multiple sources of self-contained information. Potentially resulting in cognitive overload, this can lead to pupils’ learning being hindered. The message is clear - where possible integrate pieces of information together. If information isn’t needed, leave it out!
By appreciating both the nature and the limitations of working memories, there are several easy steps we can take to ensure that our students don’t find themselves overwhelmed with the information we provide them.