Tes Maths: Pedagogy place - Instructional design

Craig Barton
02nd November 2017
Image depicting Tes Maths: Pedagogy place - Instructional Design

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!

In summary

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.  

How can Tes help?

Feeling inspired to spruce up your teaching resources? From visual tools and thought-provoking activities to differentiated worksheets, help to ensure that your students remain focussed rather than overloaded with information using this selection of examples.

Investigating Area and Circumference with Geogebra

KS4 Maths Circle Investigation with ICT. A dynamic webpage and accompanying worksheet to encourage pupils to discover the two circle formulae for themselves. They can see and manipulate the visualisation and use it to answer the questions. I have found this really successful in teaching for understanding and getting pupils to better understand and recall these formulae. A series of questions then allows pupils the chance to apply their new found knowledge. Outstanding computer lesson!
By Laura Rees-Hughes

Where is the Maths pictures

Maths is all around us
Let the pupils prove it be spotting any maths in these pictures.
By Nottseagle

Finding Turning Points using Calculus Differentiation (max and min)

This is a PowerPoint presentation that leads through the process of finding maximum and minimum points using differentiation. It starts off with simple examples, explaining each step of the working. It gradually builds the difficulty until students will be able to find turning points on graphs with more than one turning point and use calculus to determine the nature of the turning points.

I have found in the pass that students are able to follow this process when taught but often do not understand each step. As a result, they often use the wrong equation (for example, they use the equation for dy/dx to try to find y or make simple errors. This presentation is designed to lead the students through the process with an understanding of each step.

NOTE: I have updated the PowerPoint to now include an example of how this can be used to solve practical problems.
By SianMatthews

Adding and subtracting fractions (differentiated)

Two worksheets to help practise adding and subtracting fractions. Worksheet 1 concentrates on fractions with the same denominators. Worksheet 2 has fractions with different denominators.
By kittykat_102


  • Barton, Craig. “Mr Barton Maths Podcast - Greg Ashman” (2017)
  • Mayer, Richard E. "Applying the science of learning: Evidence-based principles for the design of multimedia instruction." American psychologist 63.8 (2008): 760
  • Mayer, Richard E., and Richard B. Anderson. "The instructive animation: Helping students build connections between words and pictures in multimedia learning." Journal of educational Psychology 84.4 (1992): 444
  • Mousavi, Seyed Yaghoub, Renae Low, and John Sweller. "Reducing cognitive load by mixing auditory and visual presentation modes." Journal of educational psychology 87.2 (1995): 319
  • Sweller, John, Jeroen JG Van Merrienboer, and Fred GWC Paas. "Cognitive architecture and instructional design." Educational psychology review 10.3 (1998): 251-296

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