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How I Use... Cognitive Load Theory in Design and Technology

Originally posted on the Norfolk Research School blog.

What do we know about cognitive load?
A key challenge for educators is that working memory is limited. There are lots of things that can cause it to be overwhelmed. An example is when problem-solving learners might be presented with a large amount of complex information and asked to follow a series of problem-solving steps. Where a student has limited prior knowledge committed to their long-term memory this might lead to their working memory being overwhelmed, impairing learning.

How can we use ideas about cognitive load in our teaching?
The aim of strategies that focus on managing cognitive load is not to minimise cognitive load but to optimise it — minimising unnecessary load and ensuring that working memory remains focused on the information that is being taught.

How do teachers manage cognitive load in the classroom?
Understanding cognitive load has implications for general teaching practice — for example, avoiding distractions or anxieties that might overload the working memory. Teachers report practices aimed at managing cognitive load, for example:

  • Chunking content into manageable pieces of learning
  • Creating frameworks and scaffolds to support understanding of key concepts
  • Thinking about economy of language when giving verbal instructions
  • Decluttering presentation materials.

From: Cognitive Science in the Classroom: a review of the evidence

Case Study:

Considering cognitive load when introducing hazard and risk in Design and Technology (D&T) - Jane Buck, Head of Art, Design and Technology at Notre Dame High School, Norwich

Why we do it: We carry out a range of practical activities in D&T, and they all have hazards associated with them. It’s important that our students consider what these are, and how they might reduce associated risks.

We find that this is much more successful if students review these risks and plan control measures themselves, rather than just being told what to do. However, if we do this at the same time as planning the rest of the task, students can become overloaded, and fail to plan the control measures or the task itself successfully.

What we do: We therefore ​“chunk” the information we give, focusing on risk assessment first, and then instructions for the practical task.

We use a simple table to scaffold thinking, and make sure the table itself is as sparse and uncluttered as possible. We want students to focus on the risk assessment, rather than any extraneous information.