Have you ever been in this situation: you’re meeting up with a friend to go to a concert? Upon arriving, your friend begins to introduce you to his other friends. “This is Maria, this is Carter …” By the time he gets to the 5th person, you’re struggling to remember the first.

YES! Your brain is amazing – but it does have its limits. To understand what your limits are and those of your students, lean in and read on. (Possibly, miracles await you).

The Research

What is the reality of our brain’s capacity to process new information?

There are multiple ways our brain processes cognitive input. Some information is taken in below conscious awareness (facial expressions, room temperature, pheromones, non-verbals, etc.). Let’s jump to what we know we pay attention to in our life.

First, if input is irrelevant, it is unlikely to get further attention (remember to make classroom content relevant). Your brain thrives on relevancy! Irrelevant content may just disappear.

Second, your brain might just be curious, and want to hold on to it temporarily (use curiosity as a short-term hook) just to wait and see if may be relevant.

Third, if it’s relevant and fairly urgent to use, it may be stored as short-term memory. Your short-term memory is like using a fast-dissolving, bio-degradable Post-it®. It is a quick “holding spot.” Both short-term and working memory only holds two types of content: sounds and pictures. Working memory is different in that it allows you to use, manipulate or juggle information. In this newsletter, we’ll focus on short-term memory.

Most researchers agree that our untrained temporary memory (our mental work space for the “now” moment) has a capacity to process approximately 1-4 new chunks of information at one time, for up to 30 seconds (Paas, & Ayres, 2014). Yes, we can learn to extend and expand that capacity, but that’s a starting point for most of us.

At that point, the new input is either discarded (unless it is manipulated, reinforced, or connected to existing knowledge) OR moved to the hippocampus for further evaluation and potential long-term memory. Only having “up to four seats” available in the concert (your brain’s memory) isn’t a lot, especially when you have a lot of content to explore in one day.

Here is the good news – those one-to-four seats are commonly reserved for brand new, novel data. There is unlimited space for long-term memories that have been retrieved because they relate to the novel learning (Paas, & Ayres, 2014). We’ll come back to how to best utilize this extra “standing room” in your student’s learning theater soon.

But first, we need to understand what happens when a student is exposed to more than one-to-four new ideas at a time. And to make sure we understand how small each of these “ideas” is … long division is NOT one new idea.

Long division is a complex process that takes up the full concert, assuming the student already has a strong understanding of division, multiplication, subtraction, etc.

When students’ working memory (or any other emotional or mental process) is used, it takes up “cognitive space” in the brain, called a cognitive load. When there is too much “on your plate” (e.g. emotional issues, excess content, worries and stress), we say you have “excess cognitive load.”

From the outside, it might appear that the student is: disengaged, apathetic, wide-eyed, or perhaps even nodding their head and saying “uh huh” as if they understand. For these reasons, detecting excess cognitive load when it is happening can be a challenging task even for the most Sherlock of teachers.

There are three types of cognitive load:

Intrinsic cognitive load is inherent in the difficulty of the task based on the student’s prior knowledge of the topic. The more students already know, the less they have to juggle in their brain while processing new information. In other words, some new things are just challenging to learn; there’s no scaffolding yet in play. But there are many instructional strategies below that can help students manage this form of cognitive load.

“Peripheral and extraneous” cognitive load is imposed by the environment or learning conditions. Think of those primary school worksheets with excessive decoding, coloring, graphics, and other superfluous elements that the actual learning task is nearly lost. Students spend so much mental energy trying to figure out how to navigate all the “creative” aspects that there is little mental unused processing space left for the actual learning. It’s like a novice juggler trying to juggle many balls at once, while their teacher is tossing them “four more flaming swords” of content. An overly decorated classroom can also contribute to extraneous cognitive load (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014; Choi, Merriënboer, & Paas, 2014).

A student’s emotional state (especially one of anxiety or distress) can increase the likelihood of excessive cognitive load (Fraser et al., 2012). Extraneous cognitive load can also come from a student expending mental energy on worries about being bullied, called out by the teacher, etc. This form of cognitive load should be eliminated because it depletes the student’s ability to focus on the actual learning task.

Germane cognitive load is the mental energy used to acquire and automate existing learning in long-term memory.

Your goal is this: reduce extraneous cognitive load AND design your lessons to support students in managing their intrinsic cognitive load.

Consider the case of remembering a phone number as an example – someone verbally gives you a phone number. Let’s say it is a US-based number with 10 digits. Well, 10 is more than 4, so your chances of remembering this number by yourself is pretty low.

But there are exceptions. IF the first 3 digits (area code) are also the same as yours. In the moment you recognize that, your brain has made a connection from this new data (the first digits of the phone number) to an existing learning you have made about your own phone number (schema).

By making this connection, working memory no longer needs to use up its capacity for novel information, and can instead use its standing room for all long-term memories it pulls in.

Even your own speaking patterns can create cognitive load for students. Consider the way in which you give directions. Verbose instructions with too many directives at once is a recipe for cognitive overload.

“Ok, class. So here is what you are going to do. In just a minute or two when I press play on my computer, you’ll hear the song play, (which by the way is the one you requested), … when that song comes on here is what I want you to do: first, stand up – remember to push your chair in – and then find three others as temporary partners. Now there are 28 people here today so that means that you’re going to have to practice some math here …” The teacher is 20 seconds into the instructions and she (or he) STILL hasn’t even told them what to do. Cut to the chase; say less. “When the music comes on, please stand and slide your chair in.

Perfect. Now, get together with your 4-person class team and wait for directions.”

Although there is much that has been researched about environmental and affective factors that impact cognitive load, our focus today is more on instructional design.

The Research

Habituate the principles of effective teaching below and your students will be able to efficiently use their limited memory space. These are broken into two chunks (using chunking is always a good idea).

First, consider using 3 KEY ways to PREP your students BEFORE a new cognitive load gets a chance to creep into your instruction. These tools actually make it easier for your students to start with more of a prepared brain.

  1. Priming – Giving student prior exposure to a topic days, or even a week, ahead of time can reduce their intrinsic cognitive load. Priming helps to build schema and store relative information in long-term memory before it is retrieved during the actual lesson on the topic. Remember – there is no limit to long-term storage, so this is a tricky way to beat the brain at its own capacity game, giving you more space to work with on lesson day!Dedicate a special corner of a bulletin board or wall space for a “Coming Soon” spotlight area to preview topics students will be learning in upcoming lessons. You could simply write “there, their, and they’re” or a compelling question like, “Why are noble gases stable? Hint: it has to do with their valence electrons?” Displaying a mind map or other graphic organizer of the upcoming unit also acts as a primer, and reduces the cognitive load for each ensuing lesson (Lamb, Akmal, & Petrie, 2015).It often works to give students a graphic overview (similar to a “you are here map”) that helps them situate WHERE THEY ARE in this learning process. That way they can see what else is part of the learning without trying to access, recall, and use that background.
  1. Schema Building  When new input can be connected to something students already have existing understanding of (formally called a network of schema), the “new” seat in their memory becomes open again as it is replaced with a long-term memory (or schemata) connection (Paas, & Ayres, 2014). For example, everywhere I have traveled around the world uses the classic “alligator eats the bigger number” to teach 5>3. Analogies are a powerful way to connect to existing schema and reduce cognitive load. Maybe you’ve already noticed – I am using this specific tool to help reduce your own cognitive load with the ‘seats in the theater’ metaphor for avoiding cognitive load.
  1. Emotional Support  Many of your students experience tough and sometimes brutal life events at home with parents (e.g. separation, divorce, loss of family income, get killed, go to prison). Some experience abuse, neglect, or dangerous neighborhoods. Each of these can initiate trauma, or at the least, chronic stress. You may ask students to write about what their teacher (you) should know about their lives away from school. These writing prompts can give students (especially older adolescents) a temporary “offload” of emotional weight. That alleviation can lead to better learning since the cognitive load is now lighter (Travagin, Margola, & Revenson, 2015). You may also ask students to write/talk about their concerns before starting up a new content segment or before an exam. This is highly valuable! (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011).

Now that you have prepped your students, you’ll want to be mindful of how you manage learning during any new input. Here are 3 MORE ways to support students in managing their cognitive load DURING your instruction.

  1. Chunking – If our UNTRAINED short-term memory can only hold A FEW new ideas at a time, that doesn’t give us a lot of room for new content. When introducing new concepts, chunk it down to 1-3 pieces at a time.Help them learn, rehearse, apply those new ideas and then go back and add some more. Even though this new content hasn’t had sufficient time for long-term potentiation, it will be moved to a “virtual long-term memory”, allowing for more cognitive space (Cowan, 2013).Need to teach your students the 6 steps of photosynthesis? Great – help them master the first 2 steps before adding the next 2 steps to their knowledge bank.
  1. Worked Examples – Asking students to independently apply new learning immediately after delivering it can put a lot of strain on their working memory. Instead, show them a few examples of how to use this new learning before letting them fly solo to manage cognitive load (Gerven, Paas, Merriënboer, & Schmidt, 2002). This is a common practice in math – learn a new concept, do a few examples together as a class, and THEN let students demonstrate mastery of their new knowledge. In foreign language, conjugate a few of those irregular verbs with them before having them practice on their own. In language arts, share a few excellent examples of an engaging introductory paragraph.
  1. Collaborative Group Work – This is a strategy to disperse the cognitive pressure amongst members of a team, and can help students be more successful when approaching challenging learning tasks (Paas, & Sweller, 2011). With the phone number example above, you may have tried this strategy – have a friend remember the first 3 digits of the phone number while you remember the last 4. Keep in mind, this only works in your classroom if students are working together in a high-functioning collaborative team. Teach students how to work well together by establishing common group expectations, learning to communicate well, systems for sharing feedback, and trust among team members.

Examine your teaching for any hints of extraneous cognitive load. Work to get rid of it. Then, pick one of the strategies above to work on this week. Choose wisely – there is limited space for what new ideas you can focus on. You (and your students) deserve the best for those front row seats to the greatest show on earth: the learning you are creating. Let the show begin!

Choi, H., Merriënboer, J. J., & Paas, F. (2014). Effects of the Physical Environment on Cognitive Load and Learning: Towards a New Model of Cognitive Load. Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 225-244.
Cowan, N. (2013). Working Memory Underpins Cognitive Development, Learning, and Education. Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 197-223.
Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1362-1370.
Fraser, K., Ma, I., Teteris, E., Baxter, H., Wright, B., & Mclaughlin, K. (2012). Emotion, cognitive load and learning outcomes during simulation training. Medical Education,46(11), 1055-1062.
Gerven, P. V., Paas, F., Merriënboer, J. V., & Schmidt, H. (2002). Cognitive load theory and aging: Effects of worked examples on training efficiency. Learning and Instruction, 12(1), 87-105.
Lamb, R., Akmal, T., & Petrie, K. (2015). Development of a cognition-priming model describing learning in a STEM classroom. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(3), 410-437.
Paas, F., & Ayres, P. (2014). Cognitive Load Theory: A Broader View on the Role of Memory in Learning and Education. Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 191-195.
Paas, F., & Sweller, J. (2011). An Evolutionary Upgrade of Cognitive Load Theory: Using the Human Motor System and Collaboration to Support the Learning of Complex Cognitive Tasks. Educational Psychology Review, 24(1), 27-45.
Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom. Science, 331(6014), 211-213.
Travagin, G., Margola, D., & Revenson, T. A. (2015). How effective are expressive writing interventions for adolescents? A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 36, 42-55.