Reduce Students’ Cognitive Load

by Jed Stefanowicz, Elementary Digital Learning Coach, Natick

Check out Jed’s other posts on his “Jed Talks” blog:

Follow him on Twitter @stefanowicz135

Have you seen this message on the face of your students?

Storage Full

Are we ignoring messages that preview challenging behavior or “malfunction” because of maxed out working-memory?  We’re not surprised when our devices glitch, so this post looks at our own mental storage devices through the work of of Dr. John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory and John Hattie’s Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn.

I’m not an expert on these researchers, but their work resonates in my classroom experience.  To simplify Sweller’s theory, Cognitive Load refers to the “total amount of mental activity imposed on working memory in any one instant (Malamed).”  It’s our mental effort, our brain space, and it’s easily overloaded among our students as well as ourselves.

It should come as no surprise that students who may require the most scaffolded support in accessing content and curriculum, or those who struggle with work completion, are those who most frequently flash the “storage almost full” warning to those who know to see it. Our Literacy Coach, Susan Kennedy, frequently references students’ cognitive loads when thinking about effective intervention and instruction.  She puts it plainly, “When the cognitive load increases, the quality of thinking decreases.” This might look like exhaustion, noncompliance, confusion, or refusal, but the message may simply be one of overload.

We need to resist the impulse to let difficulty with self-regulation interfere with necessity to support or reduce a student’s cognitive load. In fact, it’s likely a symptom of a momentary maxed-out mind. It’s always worth taking the time on the front-end to anticipate and identify pitfalls or hurdles that we may inadvertently place into the pathways toward student success.

For example, why make a reluctant writer miserable by forcing him or her to write about a STEM activity, when a seesaw post, video commercial, or greenscreen postcard can demonstrate understanding and intention?  The focus immediately shifts from design-thinking and creativity to task completion and lagging skills. That’s a cheap shot, especially when the activity was supposed to be engaging.

Puzzle BrainI’m no neurologist, but I know I have a finite amount of active brain-space.  My mental effort is maxed out under certain circumstances and those around me know it.  We’ve all had that moment where we seize up in one way or another when our brains are taxed. I stutter and act predictably absent-minded. Where I might miss exits or put my keys in the fridge, we all know the types of student behavior that symptomatic of overload. Full disclosure- I forgot to pick up my daughter from trumpet lessons while writing this very post (no joke, sadly).

hurdlesThis post is not about making school easier, and effective accommodations or individualized modifications are not intended to serve that purpose.  Reducing cognitive load is about enabling creativity and increasing the ability to transfer skills into tasks with success.  It’s about access and fairness, leveling the playing field by identifying and removing obstacles for students to process their thinking in context (working memory) in order to later transfer skills, knowledge, and behavior into long-term memory.

Good teachers have always known and used the tools to reach the hard-to-reach.  Guiding, modeling, grouping, and scaffolding instruction all serve to reduce cognitive load.  Mechanical structures like sentence starters or partially completed problems set the course. Even non-verbal cues and gestures convey meaning and provide additional support.  Step back and observe the rituals that you naturally do to support your students when they need it most.  Chances are, they are serving to reduce cognitive load one way or another.

RunwayWhat’s the payoff?  When kids (and we) can avoid overload, we naturally increase stamina, build confidence and develop competence.  We “clear the runway” for understanding and allow for students to formulate meaning. The hopeful result is a more empowered student with increased agency and ownership of his or her learning, rather than regular power-struggles over task-completion or other structures of “control.”

It’s not that the system is rigged, but “school” is often oriented toward the path of least resistance for highest-achieving students, while possibly structured as  an overwhelming gauntlet for those who need our support the most. It’s worth taking a step back to see how we can help clear the runway.

Even if you can’t quite nail a student’s exact learning style or skillfully reduce the cognitive load of all those who need it simultaneously, the awareness that there are distinct and individual styles is a mindset that is oriented toward personalization and support.

That’s why I’ve always gravitated toward project-based learning activities or STEM challenges that are engaging and authentic.  We resonate with moments and experiences that are personal and emotional in a way that makes cognitive demands purposeful and emotionally connected to particular purpose. Even the current educational buzz surrounding passion projects or genius hour is encouraging because it’s rooted in inquiry and interest, creativity and personalized demonstration of meaning and understanding, not measuring collected facts or prescribed content-mastery.

How can we model empathy for our students in such a way that provides learning opportunities that encourage, rather than discourage the academic?  How can we focus toward empowerment rather than compliance?  Start by actively reducing students’ cognitive loads, with the hard ones first. If we want to embody a Personalized Learning approach, it will only ignite learning if we accept that personalized learning starts with personalized teaching- and it requires empathy.

The more we can tune into our students (and our own) warning signals as we approach an unmanageable cognitive load, the more we can support meaningful, powerful, and enjoyable learning experiences for our kids.

jed present copyJed Stefanowicz taught third grade for twenty two years at Brown School in Natick, and is currently Natick’s Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) in the role of Elementary Digital Learning Coach. He provides job-embedded PD and instructional coaching for academic technology integration. Jed aims to engage and build staff/student capacity with academic technology while keeping the focus on practice over products. As a speaker and blogger, Jed shares his passion for effective tech integration to transform teaching and learning, creating digital learning environments and moments that are meaningful, memorable and measurable. View Jed’s blog: Follow him on Twitter @stefanowicz135.

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