Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cognitive Load Theory: Or How Learning Works Vol. I

The learning process can be described (in a strongly simplified way) as
1) perceiving information
2) processing it
3) and then storing and connecting it to other knowledge.
These are three different steps.  Now, one theory in pedagogical psychology that deals with learning is the cognitive load theory. It states that the learning effect depends on the mental capabilities, the cognitive load, during the processing. 

The cognitive load has to be appropriate to the learner's information processing capabilities. In most cases smaller is better. Size matters..

How can we profit from this information?

The cognitive load depends on many factors, e.g. whether the information is presented mono-modal, meaning only visual or only auditive, or multi-modal. When the information is only available in one modality, it will - counter-intuitevely - take up more cognitive resources. Hence, presenting information in a multi-modal way (visual and auditive) will help reduce the cognitive load, leaving more space for the actual processing.

Intrinsic Load

Secondly, if the information being given demands the student to keep various aspects in mind at the same time to integrate this new information, it will create more of a cognitive load.  In order to reduce that load it helps to use structured and already integrated information.
This relates to when you are structuring your upcoming class to connect the inner bits seamlessly together. It's a lot of work, but so worth it!

Extrinsic Load

The cognitive load also depends on the amount of information available to perceive.  Even if it is well structured, too much information at the same time will result in a greater loss.  For example: talking about the positions of the hand, elbow and foot in one phrase and then letting your students practice will probably make them forget one, if not two, of the three positions.  Pick one important part that you think is essential, talk about that, and then let them practice that one key element. 
True, this can be very time consuming, but the result will speak for itself.  After each key element that you've talked about, give them three times to try it out. Then repeat this with a few key elements, and in the end, shortly summarize those elements and let them practice to music.