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Every Learner Everywhere

Does Cognitive Load Impact Equity in Higher Ed?: An Intro to Cognitive Load Theory

College and university instructors thinking about designing or improving courses for online and distance formats would do well to consider the emerging findings of cognitive load theory (CLT). This is especially true when thinking about how to confront and reduce the barriers to success faced by minoritized and poverty-affected students.

CLT pertains to the digestibility of learning material. It describes how loads on our sensory memory and working memory interact and influence what gets into our long-term memory. While the theory was developed in the 1980s by Australian psychologist and educator John Sweller, it has been getting more attention during the COVID-19 pandemic for at least three reasons. 

One, the external pressures that affect cognitive load — financial challenges and personal and family responsibilities, for example — have been newly apparent. Two, the sudden shift for many to unfamiliar distance learning modalities create new cognitive loads that can interfere with learning. And, three, many faculty working in distance learning for the first time are looking for guidance on the principles of good instructional design, which often draw on CLT.

What is cognitive load theory

At its most basic, cognitive load theory describes how information is handled in the human brain. Sweller, who published the first paper on CLT in 1988, says instructional methods should avoid overloading the working memory’s limited capacity. If, for example, working memory is taken up managing the instructions for a learning activity, that’s less room for the content itself. There’s less room for an unfamiliar subject when the learner is also managing unfamiliar processes, environments, and stimuli.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, a heavier cognitive load potentially increases errors and reduces retention as it lowers the amount of relevant information stored in long-term memory. Cognitive psychologists have gone on to develop CLT by theorizing different types of cognitive load and researching factors such as how cognitive load affects novices and experts differently and the connection between visual and aural inputs.

For example, cognitive psychologists are interested in the sequencing of information. Some research on the “dual processing model” suggests that the information in an instructional video with narration is easier to retain than when watching the video with subtitles.

Instructional designers draw on this research to develop effective instructional materials. They consider how a course and the individual lessons within it should unfold so that students can move information from their sensory memory to working memory and ultimately into long-term memory.

CLT during the pandemic

Joshua Eyler, Director of Faculty Development at University of Mississippi and author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching, says cognitive load especially affects introductory students who are new to a subject, since they are trying to build networks or paths of knowledge that instructors and advanced students already have.

As students learn a new subject, they are also juggling the tests and activities associated with the course. Faculty need to think about what it was like to try and learn something for the first time, to guide their teaching. For example, both the first-year biology student and the Ph.D. candidate in biology are trying to take in lots of new knowledge on that subject, but the latter has already learned lab procedures and how to navigate campus. The new student probably has a higher cognitive load interfering with learning the content.

Meanwhile, anxiety, depression, and the distractions of the pandemic have added new dimensions to the issue of cognitive load.

“I have mentioned it in almost every presentation that I’ve done this past year,” Eyler says. “Not only do students have the usual cognitive load issues that are present in every educational setting now, but they also have the anxiety of what’s going on, so that’s taking up space.” 

Students have had to worry about everything from where they will get internet access to wondering if a family member is okay. Meanwhile, most students are navigating dramatically different learning environments with new technologies and processes that come with remote learning. 

As a result, Eyler says, even if a course had no change in the workload as it shifted from face to face to a distance format, the pandemic has left students feeling overtaxed.

Related reading: Preparing for the Increase in Student Anxiety and Depression in the College Classroom 

How cognitive load affects minoritized students

Minoritized people may be affected by someone else’s cognitive load. Researchers in medical education have shown how in high-load situations, doctors tend to default to racial biases that reinforce healthcare disparities. We weren’t able to identify any research on the parallel question of how a teacher’s or professor’s cognitive load may influence educational disparities.

Conversely, it is perhaps self-evident that witnessing or experiencing racism places an additional cognitive load on a student, but exactly how and how much has been little studied, as the authors of this literature review describe. There has been some research on how race-based social stress affects educational disparities — showing, for example, how stereotype threat and other stressors can impact academic performance — but little of it has been situated in CLT particularly.

In the article Reducing Cognitive Load (and not rigor), Cathy A. Pohan at the Center for Teaching and Learning at University of California, Merced, says, “For first-generation and/or underrepresented minority college students, both imposter syndrome and stereotype threat pose additional challenges to one’s performance . . . . The increased demands placed on students during remote learning pose additional risks to deep and lasting learning.”

Applying cognitive load theory to support student learning

One good reference point for applying CLT in your classroom is the Caring for Students Playbook’s Six Recommendations for Caring for Students from The Online Learning Consortium, Achieving the Dream, and the Every Learner Everywhere Network. It provides higher education instructors with six concrete strategies for equity-focused, inclusive teaching that acknowledge student challenges while identifying student assets. One chapter features guidance on how to review and revise course content to address cognitive load.

It advises presenting information at a pace and level of complexity that learners can fully understand and designing courses to help students navigate a new topic and to reduce anxiety. In particular, the Playbook recommends these methods:

  1. Organize your learning management system for easy navigation. As institutions switched to remote learning, the role of technology became even more critical. Therefore, effectively using the LMS, often a gateway to the course, is important. One example for easy navigation is to arrange your home page in a chronological order with content, activities, assessments, and clear due dates.
  2. Guide students through their learning. This recommendation utilizes the LMS as a way to explain what students should be looking for as they read and view course content. A video is one effective way to personalize the guidance.
  3. Chunk content. A proven way to lessen cognitive overload is by chunking content into bite-sized pieces that students can digest and then check their understanding with a quick quiz.

Generally, educators can improve their course design by thinking about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic load — the difficulty of understanding the material itself vs. understanding how it is presented or practiced — and how to reduce the load of each. Chunking, sequencing, and scaffolding reduce the intrinsic load, while simplifying practice activities and their instructions reduce the extrinsic load.

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