Simply put, learning takes place when students successfully transfer new information from their working memories into their long-term memories. Once those decks are cleared, their working memories are open to absorbing new knowledge and begin the process over again. Long-term memory is like have a database in your brain. You can draw on any of your stored memories without effecting your ability to add new learnings. It is one of the reasons why learning processes tend to be sequential, as each new piece of information or concept is laid out and applied on the foundation of previously acquired knowledge. In other words, the more that you can draw on your long term memory, the more you can reduce the cognitive load on your working memory and optimize your learning.
Recently, the Centre for Education Statistics and evaluation in New South Wales (Australia) released a study entitled Cognitive Load Theory in Practice: Ideas for the classroom. It looks at three key steps in the learning process that vary according to the level of knowledge and understanding housed in a student's long term memory - their personal baseline.
The steps are simple and not surprising:
1. When teaching new content to students without much pre-existing knowledge, teachers should provide students with lots of detailed, fully guided instruction;
2. As the students’ knowledge and skill increases, teachers should provide a mix of guided instruction and problem-solving practice; and,
3. Finally, as students become very proficient, teachers should provide minimal guidance and allow students to practise their skills with lots of problem-solving tasks. Some students will progress to independent problem-solving faster than others.
The study goes on to outline seven different teaching strategies, with examples, of how to optimize cognitive load and maximize student learning. Two of these strategies in particular resonated with me. The first because it was something that was fundamental to our Universal Design approach; and the second because it provided a great insight as to how we could improve our own practice.
The study recommends that information be presented both orally and visually at the same time. It notes that our working memories have "two separate ‘channels’ – one for dealing with visual information, and another for dealing with auditory information. By spreading the delivery of information across both of these channels at once, teachers can manage cognitive load and make it easier for students to learn the information." This can be done by communicating information using both images and sound. Typically, our teachers always review the outline of the day verbally while pointing at the visual schedule on the front wall. The two inputs reinforce each other and cement the knowledge more firmly in long-term memory. We call it a visual support.
However, the study also presents a cautionary note. It reminds teachers to limit "inessential information" that might clutter the student's working memory and lead to overload and shut down. By inessential information it means inputs that are either irrelevant to the central learning at hand, or redundant. Specifically, if the identical information is being presented in two different modes it can potentially confuse or overload working memory rather than reinforcing learning. For example, if a teacher puts a long quote up on the SMARTBoard and then proceeds to read it out loud, the two inputs compete for attention in the learner's mind causing confusion and making it more difficult to absorb the learning.
See, I told you that it was a delicate balancing act!
When schools and teachers spend time talking about Executive Function, usually a critical component of their concerns revolve around the need to optimize working memory. Balancing students' cognitive loads in a systematic and deliberate fashion through carefully constructed teaching strategies is a key component in maximizing student learning. This study goes a long way in supporting all schools to move more deliberately down that path.