Ask the Experts

We asked our Subject Experts one question. “How does cognitive load theory impact on teaching practice within your subject?” Here is what they told us;

Matteo Sciberras – Primary Maths

“We know that our working memory has a finite capacity and can be easily overwhelmed. Conversely, we know that our long-term memory can be a vast store of knowledge, allowing us to bypass the limitations of our working memory.

An obvious way this can impact teaching practice in the primary classroom can be seen through which elements of mathematics effective teachers prioritise for retrieval practice with their students. For example, we know that formal methods of addition and subtraction require efficient, accurate knowledge about number bonds within 20. Knowing that 14 subtract 8 is equal to 6 is going to reduce the pressure on a student’s working memory when they are using a formal method to calculate 94 – 38, thus reducing the chances of error.

Effective teachers recognise this and, in turn, prioritise the development of mathematical fluency, particularly in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.”

Lynn Welsh – Secondary Art and Design

“Cognitive overload in Secondary Art teaching is a very common problem, why? Well art and design teachers are visual creatures, we like imagery and stimulus, our rooms are often full of interesting and colourful displays that can and do excite and engage students, but for some it can just be too much of an extraneous and sensory overload and a very confusing environment to be in. We therefore need to be aware of the children that will find this the art environment a challenge, place them appropriately in the class and be aware of their needs during the lesson so that this overload is kept to a minimum.

Much of the work we do whilst teaching involves the analysis and breaking down of images, techniques, and processes to improve student understanding and allow for an independent and creative response to take place. This can involve a huge amount of information, firstly, visually, through the analysis of images, which can be complex and challenging in theme, subject matter context or concept and then by the explanation and demonstration of associated techniques.

One of the biggest mistakes our beginner teachers make is speaking for too long and not chunking information down into manageable sections. We are often personally so enthused by art that we wax lyrically, expecting all our students to have the same passion and level of understanding. Most secondary school students however are itching to get onto practical work, use their hands, feel the materials and experiment with them to see what they can do. It is much more fruitful to start lessons off with a bit of exploration, then chunked information, perhaps demonstrated via a visualiser so that students are exposed to more complex information in smaller steps. Step by step guides, laid out very clearly with visual and short sentence are also effective ways of avoiding cognitive overload.”

Susan Ogier – Primary Art and Design

“Pedagogical considerations always need to fore-fronted when teaching art and design. Often we are able to celebrate the differences in pedagogy from other areas of learning that is afforded by essentially practical nature of the subject. However, there are many misconceptions around the teaching of art and design and one of those is that by simply being engaged in art activity, children will learn and progress. This could be described as cognitive underload! Equally it is possible to cram learning in art into too short a space in the timetable, and rush through tasks, getting the job done, but missing the depth of learning. To enable good learning in art and design to happen, projects or plans needs to be designed and sequenced as carefully as any other subject to ensure that learning is deep and remembered, so that children’s understanding and knowledge can be securely built upon as they progress. The brand-new Ofsted Research Review underlines this: it gives clear examples and suggests that children should be practiced in some elements of learning in art and design to the point of ‘automaticity’, to enable children to process new concepts and understandings.

To avoid children experiencing cognitive overload, teachers can break the learning into small steps -which can happen within one lesson or over a whole project towards an end-point, taking children on a journey of learning that is informative, enjoyable, practical and satisfying. Consistent, frequent, immersive, multisensory activities will ensure that learning becomes embedded, and will enable children to continue on a life-long love of making and enjoying art.”

Helen Ostell – Primary and Secondary Physical Education

“People often ask how cognitive load theory applies to practical PE.  My response is always ‘the same way that it applies to other subjects; students need to move information form their working memory to their long-term memory’.

Curriculum planning and the sequencing of the curriculum is key to ensuring that connections can be made between the different aspects of the curriculum.   For example, the skills learnt in key stage three gymnastics provide and excellent foundation for the introduction of trampolining in key stage four.   The principles of attacking play taught in football at the beginning of the year are applicable to hockey taught later in the year.    Trainee teachers and early career teachers need to understand the reasons behind the sequencing of the curriculum so that they can support students to make the relevant connections.

Well thought-out medium-term plans (schemes of work) are essential to enabling pupil progress across a block of work.  For example it is important that skills are taught in the correct order if students are to continually build on prior knowledge and that routines/games are built up to the final version gradually to allow students to apply skills in the right context.  Trainee teachers and early career teachers need to develop strong subject knowledge in the activities that they teach in order to produce meaningful schemes of work.

Individual lessons should build up skills gradually, provide models, continually reinforce key teaching points and allow plenty of time to practice.  These are key if students are to make progress.  How many times have you observed a trainee teacher’s lesson where there were no demonstrations, the teaching points were only mentioned when the skill was first introduced and there were limited opportunities for students to practice, get feedback, refine and re-practice?  Trainee teachers and early career teachers need to be very clear about their learning objectives and ensure that all activities and formative assessment are clearly aligned to these if students are to make progress. ”

Kirsty Wilcockson – Secondary Music

“An example of this in Music could be around ensuring that learning is broken down into small chunks and making thinking steps explicit, for learners to be successful. This is particularly true of a performing task that requires students to read notation. Learners would need a modelled example of what the task sounds like, how to interpret the notation, and technical information about sound production on an instrument before moving to trying to interpret notation themselves and play the task.”

Helen Snelson – Secondary History

“This is a vast question that could fill pages, so in a few lines I am going to limit myself to one observation relating to history. Pupils really struggle to make sense of, and to work with, substantive knowledge in history unless they have a sense of the period. It is a mistake to think that we should just stick to specific topic knowledge. To build secure knowledge in history we need to pay attention to contextual, or hinterland, knowledge. It is this that helps pupils to build the schema they need. Let me explain with an example. If learning about medieval ideas about health and treatments for GCSE history, a pupil needs to have a sense of what the medieval world actually looked like and how it functioned, they need to know something of the values and beliefs of the time, they need to know what people could not imagine in those times. Teaching this knowledge is sometimes referred to as ‘world-building’. It enables pupils to have historically accurate mental pictures and schema. These enable specific knowledge of medieval ideas and treatments to fit into an established framework of knowledge. They help make the specific more memorable and, crucially, help pupils to use their specific topic knowledge for themselves in historically accurate ways.”

Dr Linda Whitworth – Primary Religious Education

This article refers to intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load.

When beginner teachers are asked to plan and teach RE it is very important that they are briefed on three aspects which will help them employ cognitive load theory effectively and appropriately.

How the lesson or series of lessons they are going to teach fits into the school’s plan and approach to RE and the Agreed Syllabus the school is working from.

This will enable beginner teachers to see the piece of the jigsaw they are teaching and how it fits in. Identifying the knowledge to be taught and the ways it can be taught provides boundaries and means they can do their background research and planning effectively, especially if the subject matter is new to them. This can also help reduce pupils’ extraneous cognitive load by teachers ensuring the material is taught in ways they are familiar with.

What and how the children have already learned about a particular religion or non-religious belief

This enables the teacher to understand the long-term memories and schemata the children have built up over previous RE learning and enables more effective questioning to prompt them to retrieve that knowledge. There is a lot to learn in RE, so it is important to identify what is required in each lesson and think through how it can best be presented to reduce the intrinsic cognitive load or inherent difficulty in the material. If some of the material has already been covered, then reminders (e.g. visual or verbal) can be provided to promote recall, which will help develop schemata. If it is all new material then teachers need to adjust their teaching so that the children can gain understanding within the scope of their working memory. Three or four elements of new information is often enough so as to prevent cognitive overload. This is why developing new knowledge over a scheme of work is more successful than front-loading it, so there can be references throughout to previous learning to deepen understanding. With younger children in particular it is helpful to introduce a belief through the eyes of a child or children so the class are drawn in to understanding someone else’s experience or story rather than through explaining concepts. There are a number of  videos available to help (e.g. BBC and Truetube). Artefacts are a useful resource as knowledge can be built up in layers, e.g. from the descriptive to the symbolic. Stories are particularly helpful as they often prompt memory and can be used to prompt recall.

Knowing the backgrounds and understandings of the children in the class

Knowing the backgrounds of the class will help teachers identify who may already have developed schemata because of experiences outside learning RE in school. If, for example, pupils attend religious services or celebrate religious festivals within a community they will already have some understanding of an area of belief and practice. This should be anticipated and accommodated in the activities designed for the lesson.

Having frequent opportunities to teach RE on teaching practice is very important in developing teacher confidence in a subject which can appear daunting, both in terms of subject knowledge and sensitivities. Beginner teachers also need to recognise CLT for their own learning when preparing to teach new material. Advance preparation is key to good teaching in all subjects and RE is no exception.

Kate Percival – Primary Languages

“The fine balance of managing cognitive load can make the difference between really grasping new learning and total overwhelm for most pupils in the primary languages classroom.  Identifying prior knowledge is key to this and often a diagnostic question or activity at the start of the lesson can help teachers do this.  When considering a ‘recall’ activity, try and make it a true recall activity; that is to say, ask pupils what they can remember without recapping for them or allowing them to re-read/re-hear first. This is often an uncomfortable process for any learner but actually acts to help strengthen memory! For example, ask pupils to list on a mini whiteboard all the weather phrases they learnt in Spanish last week. This will soon highlight how many have been retained in long term memory, if there are any major issues with spellings (although accurate spelling need not be insisted on in primary languages) and if some, or all of the phrases need to be revisited to refresh working memory before moving on.  Language learning, like mathematics, can be thought of as spiralling up and down knowledge.  However, when there are gaps in the long-term memory recalling prior learning, the pupil’s working memory becomes overloaded.

When introducing new language, as a rule, depending on the age and stage of the learner I think between five and ten words or phrases in a lesson is enough for most to cope with. This is intrinsic cognitive load – the inherent difficulty of the task or content itself. Obviously, some will manage all and some much fewer. It is always useful for pupils to take control of their own learning by asking them how many words they think they will remember by the end of the lesson. By setting a personal goal, what often happens is they remember more than they thought which in turn helps with motivation.

Next, you need to consider extraneous cognitive load: load generated by the way material is presented which may not always aid learning. For example, if PowerPoint slides are too busy, full of text or graphics, there may be too much to take in.  Strip back what is presented both on screen and on working walls in the classroom. Where an image aids understanding, it is fine to use. Keep visuals consistent throughout your scheme so for example use the same image of a hat when the word ‘hat’ in the target language is part of your teaching.

Then there is the ‘germane’ cognitive load – so what you do with it! Purposeful activities designed for pupils to really engage with the language will help forge schemas (links) in the brain which aids long-term memory.  Often, this does not need to be ‘all singing all dancing’ – a simple game of Simon Says or Lotto! can be enough to hook children into an activity whilst assimilating new vocabulary at the same time.  Designing the ultimate sandwich with target-language fillings can be enough food for thought.

Considering scaffolding to help support the learning process and take away additional cognitive pressure can also focus pupils’ efforts on acquiring language and skills without having to ‘manage’ overly complex steps along the way. Take Primary Language Network’s ‘Rainbow Writing’ – sentence building support, colour coded according to the colours of the rainbow which help emergent writers of a target language construct a grammatically accurate sentence. Pupils can piece together as many or as few sections as they can manage, ordering and sticking pre-printed flashcard versions if necessary. For some, colour coding their own writing helps make even more sense of the process. Those who feel more confident can attempt to write without referring to the screen or use bilingual dictionaries to look up unfamiliar alternatives. Everyone can achieve to their own level.

Scaffolded support so that all can achieve in the foreign language writing process.

In short, break down the introduction of new language into small steps, pause and give opportunity to practise regularly to ‘prevent forgetting’ and make sure whatever is presented on screen is clear without too much information to process at one time.  Lastly, be aware of reducing cognitive load too much.  Learning is difficult and it is meant to challenge us.  The learning process should be manageable but not overly simplified.”

Sara Davidson – Secondary Languages

“Cognitive Load Theory is instrumental to modern languages teaching and is something that modern languages teachers have been aware of for a very long time. Vocabulary and grammar structures must be committed to memory in order to be able to speak spontaneously in a modern foreign language. In order for that ‘automatisation’ process to take place, lots of drilling, repetition, carefully scaffolded oral and written production and retrieval activities have to have taken place first, and the modern language teacher needs to make sure that students are accessing the same language content regularly via multiple entry points. Teachers need to limit the amount of new vocabulary and structures in a lesson and interleave it with previously learnt vocabulary. According to research, a student will need to have come across a piece of vocabulary between 8-20 times before committing it to their long-term memory. The more we can do to make new words memorable and relatable the better therefore! Careful lesson-planning to incorporate specific vocabulary into our lessons (in target language instructions as well as in written materials) is vital.”

If you have any questions you would like to ask our experts, then please contact us.

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