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Notes from the Field #2: What's the Most Important Thing?
Notes from the Field #2: What's the Most Important Thing?
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For 117 students at St. George's School this week, everything they do will be new. They will be bombarded with information, all of it stressing their working memory in ways they likely haven't experienced in some time, or perhaps, ever. After their orientation activities, they'll be thrust into the start of their academic careers and charged with navigating their afternoon commitments, all while negotiating the social dynamics of a residential learning community. They are, to use the colloquialism, "drinking from a firehose." It's a lot. With that in mind, teachers, coaches, and dorm parents would do well to consider 'Cognitive Load Theory' (CLT) and its applications both during classroom instruction as well as the work our students engage in outside of the classroom. (click the title to read more)

For 117 students at St. George's School this week, everything they do will be new. They will be bombarded with information, all of it stressing their working memory in ways they likely haven't experienced in some time, or perhaps, ever. After their orientation activities, they'll be thrust into the start of their academic careers and charged with navigating their afternoon commitments, all while negotiating the social dynamics of a residential learning community. They are, to use the colloquialism, "drinking from a firehose." It's a lot. With that in mind, teachers, coaches, and dorm parents would do well to consider 'Cognitive Load Theory' (CLT) and its applications both during classroom instruction as well as the work our students engage in outside of the classroom.

Stemming initially from the work of educational psychologist John Sweller in the late 1980s, CLT argues "there is a limit to the information the human brain can process at one time..." and that educational design "...should fit within the characteristics of working memory, in order to maximize learning." (NSW—CESE Report, 2017). It seems somewhat obvious at first glance, but how often do we forget this when we enter our spaces with students each day? Having completed meetings, for now, the seventh time as a member of the St. George's faculty I still grapple with the various software we utilize as adults in the community. I've logged into Folio when I've meant to log into REACH and have wondered why I can't locate a SISO request. While this is likely a product of my increasing age and the compromised nature with which my working memory exists under with the Cerenzia brothers testing me each day, it still speaks to an experience somewhat parallel to that of our students. I think of my short-lived attempt to learn the piano last year when I'd hurry off to a lesson during a free period, only to inevitably collapse mid-Jingle Bells as the forces of intrinsic and extraneous load converged to overwhelm an otherwise pleasant tune. Luckily, thanks to the germane (or good) type of cognitive load and thoughtful instructional design of my teacher, I can still tickle the ivories a bit, even with such limited practice. (NSW—CESE Report, 2017). You wouldn't hire me for your holiday party, but I can still impress a three-year-old on occasion.

In the initial 'Notes From the Field,' we examined the role of the LMS in thinking about teaching and learning. Unsurprisingly, Sweller and others now also consider the role of technology and e-learning in relationship to CLT. If done incorrectly, Canvas might actually increase cognitive demands on students, thus inhibiting learning. If done correctly, however, it can add depth to content, enhance collaboration, and expand communication across institutions. Researchers Judy Lambert, Slava Kalyuga, and Lisa Capan capture these tensions well, writing, "To be effective, e-learning designs must balance a stimulating, interactive environment with manageable levels of learner mental effort" (Lambert, Kalyuga, Capan, 2009). It can feel like a tall task for educators. But let's not complicate things too much. Talk to you students, especially in the early phases of instruction, walk them through your course design, and understand with them what would help reduce their cognitive load each night.

Featured Research

New South Wales Government—Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation. “Cognitive Load Theory: Research That Teachers Really Need to Understand.” Learning Curve, September 2017, 12. https://www.cese.nsw.gov.au/images/stories/PDF/cognitive-load-theory-VR_AA3.pdf **(Hat tip to Dr. Scott Stachelhaus for pointing me to this resource, which is far more accessible than some of the original, more technical papers)

Lambert, Judy, Slava Kalyuga, and Lisa A. Capan. “Student Perceptions and Cognitive Load: What Can They Tell Us about e-Learning Web 2.0 Course Design?” E-Learning and Digital Media 6, no. 2 (June 2009): 150–63. https://doi.org/10.2304/elea.2009.6.2.150.

SG Teaching Standards

*1A—Relationships *2.3—Understanding