Cognitive Load and Learning
Do you feel mentally overloaded on a day-to-day basis? To the point where you find it difficult to remember anything more? This experience is related to what psychologists call "cognitive load"—the total amount of mental effort being used by our working memory attempting to process incoming information into long-term memory. Working memory can typically only handle 5 to 9 items of information at any one time. This means that if we try to take on too much information at once, learning can become inhibited and we start to feel “overloaded”.
Workplaces today are complex environments, with rapidly changing information, a dizzying array of technologies, and a shifting set of interpersonal relationships to maintain. It’s not hard to imagine how this melting pot of multitasking, interrupted workflows, and complex information can easily create cognitive overload, which can then lead to loss of job satisfaction and poorer interpersonal relationships.
Managing Cognitive Load = Better Learning
Understanding how cognitive load can impede our learning gives us the clues we need to achieve better learning outcomes (hint: the answer is not rote learning). Here are some key ideas:
- Adapt tasks to fit your expertise—the more a new task fits in with your existing understanding the less effort is required for working memory, since you can simply retrieve old information rather than process new information.
- Break a learning task into parts—since working memory can only process a limited number of items, don’t try to tackle too much at once. Break a problem down into discrete sections that you can work on individually before consolidating into the bigger project. This is part of a common memory and learning tool called “chunking” whereby complex information is broken down into chunks that working memory can process as individual items.
- Don’t multitask! Some people like to pride themselves on their ability to handle multiple tasks at the same time, but for most people this simply leads to poorer performance on every task compared to just doing them one at a time. Don’t make learning harder for yourself—focus on one thing at a time.
- Use multiple senses—since working memory has a visual component and an auditory component, learning can be improved by taking information through both channels so that it can be processed in parallel. Conversely, taking in too much of one channel (visual or auditory) can make it more difficult to create new patterns of understanding.
Putting it into Practice
So, what specific techniques can we employ to improve our learning, and how do they stack up against how we are typically told to learn in more formal settings?
- Be an active learner. Reading or listening alone will rarely achieve good learning outcomes. Your learning process should involve writing (taking notes, highlighting), speaking (asking questions, explaining things to others) and creating your own meaning (e.g. making up your own mnemonics)
- Question everything. If you are presented with a fact, ask why is it true? How do we know that? Why is it not some other way? Focus on the reasoning behind the information, rather than the information itself. You should be asking these questions of yourself as you study.
- Look for connections. Think of your memories as “templates” for new learning. If you can write your new learning into the templates of your current memories, you will save yourself a lot of mental effort. If you can “chunk” large parts of new learning in terms of the information you already know, you can maximise the available space you have in working memory for learning new information.
- Practice effectively. Practice testing and distributed practice are the two cornerstones of good rehearsal of knowledge. Part of your routine should always involve testing your understanding and knowledge, both while you learn and afterwards. And (you may not be surprised to hear), cramming is a bad idea! Carrying out your learning over a steady period of time is much more effective for new information retention than short dedicated bursts of study, which can easily overload working memory
Now that you have finished reading, have a think about some techniques you might like to employ to remember what you just read. The clues are right in front of you.
References available upon request.