How to Promote Effective Learning by Optimizing Cognitive Load?

Darryl Bachmeier
May 25, 2019

Besides short-term and long-term memory, scientists classify a third type of memory that helps in learning, memorizing, and understanding something. It’s known as working memory. It involves the part of the brain that holds on to the information for a few minutes or seconds.

Our working memory plays a crucial role in enhancing cognitive abilities of the brain that are required in problem-solving, reasoning, developing concentration, and processing information to create long-term memories.

For instance, when we need to understand a story, our working memory processes the events involved in it while we listen to it. Similarly, when we are solving mathematical problems, we are able to rehearse the sequences involved in it due to the working memory involved in it.

Cognitive Load and Working Memory

Though working memory is important to conduct various everyday tasks, it has a limited capacity to retain data or manipulate information at one time. The capacity of the working memory is determined by the load on the memory that’s known as Cognitive Load.

The cognitive load on memory is influenced by various factors. These factors could be related to the ways of learning, the interface involved, or even the surroundings. When the learner is forced to learn irrelevant information or the surroundings distract the focus of the learner, it becomes difficult for him to comprehend the information or memorize the sequence properly. This happens because the cognitive load increases on the working memory.

How Cognitive Load Affects Learning?

Different types of tasks require different amounts of attention and comprehension to learn them and carry them out successfully. If the learning process is difficult or the learner is not able to pay his full attention to the information being provided, it makes the learning process ineffective. Moreover, the learner will not be able to use their working memory to their true potential due to increased cognitive load.

An effective learning experience can be achieved out of different tasks by filtering unnecessary or irrelevant information and designing learning techniques that optimize the load on the working memory.

How to Ensure Effective Learning by Managing Cognitive Load?

The cognitive load on the working memory can be intrinsic, extraneous, and germane depending on the cognitive processing of the information being learned. If the cognitive load is managed well, it benefits in memorizing and rehearsing the information easily.

Intrinsic Load

The intrinsic load on the memory is evaluated by the complexity of the subject to be learned or the interactivity of the task that the learner needs to perform. The more interactive or engaging ways are adopted, the easier the task becomes for the learner.

For example, adding two numbers will be a simpler task for the learner compared to solving a complex algebraic equation. The former task will place a less cognitive load on the brain compared to the latter task.

By starting the task with basic steps leading to the more complex steps can engage the learner in the activity and make the learning process easier for him.

Extraneous Load

When the learner needs to follow instructions to learn something, the load on the working memory is known as extraneous cognitive load. This type of cognitive load increases due to a poorly designed course, complicated interface, or ineffective teaching methods. This can either make the task more complicated or distract the attention of the learner from the information that’s needed to be learned.

To minimize extraneous load on the memory, effective presentation methods and user-friendly interfaces should be followed. Moreover, avoiding redundant links, irrelevant information, or unnecessary typography can allow the user to pay more attention to the relevant information and learn new things easily.

Germane Load

When the task involves scheme construction or a pattern to learn some skill or new information, the load associated with this type of task is known as germane load. It’s the desirable, constructive method of handling information. It stems from generative processing of the information which involves conceptualization of a particular scenario and describing the outcome of that situation.

For example, a course that aims to teach first aid basics can be designed in two ways. One way is to describe a particular scenario where the learner has different options to explore and learn about the outcome. The other way is to just explain each procedure one-by-one.

The prior way will promote effective learning for this course and develop a greater germane load compared to the latter way. Similarly, flowcharts can be used to describe complex procedures.

Mnemonics are another example of generative learning strategy that involves acronyms, rhymes, or acrostics to remember a sequence in a more sophisticated way. In mathematics, a great example of Mnemonics is the use of BEDMAS (Brackets, Exponents, Division, Multiplication, Addition, and Subtraction) to learn the order of mathematical operations. When the information is organized systematically, it becomes easier for the learner to learn and remember.

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