Minimizing Cognitive Load: Maximizing Learning – Part 1

3 Oct

Four Key Strategies

Cognitive load refers to the amount of mental effort expended in your brain’s working memory. Learners only have so much working memory available. When learning new material, what may be a simple concept for the instructor, as an expert or experienced learner, may be much more complex for the students as novice learners, whether in a new field or new to college-level learning. Thus, it is easy to overload students with too much information so that they miss some ideas or points that we think are important.

In this post I will suggest 4 strategies we can employ as instructors to adjust the cognitive load so that they can engage in learning new course material and ideas. Most of these strategies are easy to implement and can be done immediately:

  1. Prioritize what you want students to learn
  2. Provide navigation through class
  3. Provide guidance for consolidation of information
  4. Collect student feedback

1. Prioritize

There is only so much information students can process when you present new material. Since you can’t present everything, prioritize what you want students to learn.

  • Organize your class sessions around 3 main points. If you are having trouble limiting yourself to 3 main points, you may be trying to cover too much information. (As a corollary, this may be a time to examine homework assignments to see how they might be revised to help prepare students for the 3 main points of the upcoming class session.)
  • “If my students only remember one thing from class today what should it be?” Use your answer to this question to help identify your 3 main points.
  • Break complex material into smaller, sequential pieces. These smaller pieces will be easier for students to learn and you can build upon them throughout your class.

2. Provide Navigation 

Provide navigation throughout class and on your course management system; these basic strategies can have a big effect on student understanding:

  • Remember those 3 main points? Use these to organize your class session and be explicit with your students about that organization. Having an agenda that includes the 3 key points as signposts, and referring to the agenda as part of class will help students orient themselves to what you want them to learn.
  • Use verbal cues within your presentations whether video or face-to-face. – “The FIRST strategy is…” “The SECOND strategy is…” This simple strategy has been shown to significantly increase student learning (LINK) and only takes a few seconds to do.
  • Create a Moodle site that is easy to navigate. Recent research has shown that the ease of course navigation determines students’ attitudes towards a course and the instructor and affects their motivation to work in the course.
  • Use visual organizers in class and on your Moodle site. For instance during a PowerPoint presentation you can insert Section-formatted lides to indicate that you are beginning a new section. On your Moodle site this may take the form using Labels to set out categories such as Before Class, During Class, and After Class.

3. Provide Frameworks

Provide guidance for consolidation of information.  If you don’t provide a framework for students to consolidate the material you present, they will create their own, often inadequate, frameworks.

  • Provide your students with organizing schemas. These can be verbal, visual or both. Provide students with a very simple framework with which to organize future information they will receive throughout your course. This may take the form of a hierarchy or categorizing grid.
  • Refer back to your organizing schema throughout your course. This will reinforce the use of the schema and build good habits in your students that can persist after the course is over.
  • Provide opportunities for students to consolidate information. Adding brief pauses during your presentations to allow students to reflect on and organize material can help their learning. One study showed that three two-minute pauses during a lecture resulted in significantly greater learning for students compared to their peers who did not have the pauses.

4. Collect Feedback

One of the easiest ways to find out if your students are benefiting from your delivery strategies is to ask them. Collect and respond to student feedback

  • Collect feedback early in the semester, ideally after the 3rd or 4th week. This will give you time to make adjustments. The feedback can be as simple as two questions “What about this course is helping your learning?” “What are your suggestions for improvement?”
  • Respond to student feedback. Summarize the feedback you receive and tell students what changes you will make based on that feedback. If students request a change you are not willing to make, acknowledge that and tell them why you won’t be making the change.
  • Collect follow-up feedback to see if your modifications are working. These actions help you improve your course and demonstrate to students that you care about their learning.

Next week’s Maximize student learning by minimizing cognitive load – Part 2 will address the learning science principles behind these strategies.

Links to Articles


One Response to “Minimizing Cognitive Load: Maximizing Learning – Part 1”


  1. Prior Knowledge: Impacts on Student Learning | TILT - 20 March 2017

    […] first TeachingSupport workshop, which focused on minimizing cognitive load to maximize learning, used the following […]

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