Do you ever find yourself having to read an article several times before it makes sense? How about having to revisit online tutorials again and again because they just won’t stick?
Don’t worry… you’re not alone and you’re in the right place.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at Cognitive Load Theory and discover how we can use it to make learning easier and start retaining everything in a single sitting.
Similar to the way athletes leverage the body’s processes to improve sports performance, we can leverage the way the brain processes information to make complex concepts easier to grasp. With that said… let’s get into a complex concept.
The 3 Essential Stages for Our Memory to Stick
There are several theoretic models that attempt to explain how the mind processes information. One of the most prominent is the Atkinson–Shiffrin model, published in 1968. According to this model, external information has to journey through three stages of our memory in order to stick.
These three stages are:
- Sensory memory – a filter which discards unnecessary information
- Working memory – a gateway to the long-term memory, passing on information via repetition and schemas (explained below)
- Long-term memory – where information sticks
To complete the explanation above, a schema is simply a way to organise multiple memories into a single entity through classification and association. Once information is sorted into schemas it’s changed from something abstract to something familiar, connected and easy to recall.
Here’s an Example of How the 3 Stages Work in Your Brain
You’re in a café, sipping on a cappuccino whilst reading an article about the discovery of a new, strange animal.
Your sensory memory filters out the background noise of the café, the taste of the coffee and the smell of the food, and allows you to retain the information about this new animal.
Next, your working memory searches existing schemas in your long-term memory for anything resembling the animal… and it finds a close match.
The animal is similar to a cat, so it’s added to your cat schema and enters into your long-term memory.
So What Exactly Is the Cognitive Load Theory?
First published by John Sweller in the Journal of Cognitive Science, Cognitive Load Theory builds upon the foundation outlined above by focusing on the capacity of the working memory.
According to Cognitive Load Theory, our working memory only has a capacity of five to nine items. Therefore, for us to learn, we have to avoid memory overload.
Fortunately, this theory also identifies two handy ways to extend the working memory and maximise learning.
The Modality Effect
Auditory and visual information are processed separately in the mind and are able to exist side by side in the working memory without claiming double the space. This is called The Modality Effect.
The Modality Effect explains why slideshows accompanied by narration have become the staple of lectures and presentations worldwide. What would happen if the narration was written onto the slides instead of being spoken? Yes, information overload.
Leverage Existing Knowledge
New information delivered in a way that builds upon existing ideas and concepts (schemas) is easier to make sense of and retain. This means that the sequence of information is important. Simple, familiar topics should come before more complex, new ones.
5 Strategies to Make the Most out of The Cognitive Load Theory
By applying Cognitive Load Theory to our learning we can avoid information overload and absorb new information more quickly, with less stress.
1. Identify your existing knowledge
Before you start studying a new topic take a few minutes to run over what you already know. Make connections between your existing knowledge and the new topic. This will maximise the chance that you’ll leverage existing knowledge on the subject and also make building on existing schemas easier.
2. Avoid obsessing about goals
Goals are important, but sometimes focusing on them too much ruins the learning process. When our mind thinks too far ahead, it loads our working memory and makes us less able to process new information. By focusing on learning and letting go of goals, at least temporarily, we allow ourselves to learn at our optimum rate.
3. Focus on one thing at a time
The saying “you can’t serve two masters at the same time” holds true when it comes to learning. Switching between multiple sources of similar information, such as two visual items, uses a lot of cognitive load. To avoid this, focus on one source at a time or find a way to combine them together.
4. Use audiovisual media
By incorporating both streams of information, audio and visual, we harness The Modality Effect and are able to benefit from peak cognitive load without tipping into information overload.
5. Reduce unnecessary information
Make the sensory memory’s job easier by removing distractions in the environment. For example, if you’re listening to a podcast on your train ride to work then try closing your eyes or, better still, making notes to bring in a visual element and take advantage of The Modality Effect.
No longer do we need to experience the frustration that comes with information overload. Armed with Cognitive Load Theory and the strategies in this article, we’re able to become better learners and more effective teachers.
I originally published this article on Lifehack.org and it’s also appeared on my column on HuffPost.