Cognitive load and Cognitive Load Theory

This post was inspired by a blog on the ‘TeacherToolkit’. The original work is here:

What is meant by cognitive load?

Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being using by working memory, or, as it is more commonly known, short-term memory in the completion of a task.

Take this example which requires a great deal of working memory to solve: Andrew is forty years old. Carrie is four years older than Jane who is two years younger than Andrew. Jane is twice the age of Sue who is the same age as Bill who is one year younger than Pam. How old is Pam?

What is the impact of heavy cognitive load on students’ ability to learn?

Cognitive Load Theory states that when working memory is over worked or overloaded, the resulting learning will be of less importance than if working memory was not over worked or overloaded. Therefore, by reduced cognitive load, pupils will learn more from completing tasks and solving problems. For instance, in the question above, without the aid of a pen and paper (or indeed having the luxury of the problem written down in a permanent form), it necessitates too much working memory to take anything away from the task except its answer (Pam is twenty); any learning of potential rules or valuable problem solving lessons are lost.

So what can we do to reduce students’ cognitive load?

  • It has been argued that reducing cognitive load by simplifying technical language and removing specialist knowledge is actually harmful to students. The Expertise Reversal Effect occurs when knowledge that is needed and has been acquired is lost and pupils become deskilled. To avoid this, we need to transfer key knowledge into students’ long-term memory so that remembering what a simile is or that Henry VIII was the second Tudor Monarch places no burden on working memory.
  • Studies have shown that while individuals have very limited working memory, by collaborating, in effect they are pooling their working memories. Provided that the costs of collaborating are less than the increase in working memory due to pooling, performance should be increasing compared to individual learning.
  •  Providing unnecessary information can be a major reason for instructional failure. In the worked example about age, we do not need to know that “Carrie is four years older than Jane” or that “Sue…is the same age as Bill” to get the correct answer. Adding in this material places further demands on an already heavy cognitive load. Such additional information can come in the form of information, redundant or non-sequential instruction or images that do not relate in very specific ways to the material.
  • Element interactivity also contributes to the negative effects of cognitive load. If elements of information must interact with one another (as in the example), they must be processed simultaneously in working memory to be properly understood, imposing a heavy cognitive load. Physically integrating various sources of information, for instance, in written or image form, so that they no longer have to be mentally integrated will reduce extraneous cognitive load and facilitate learning.
  • Finally, research conducted in the field of cognitive load suggests that adopting a “goal free” approach to teaching and learning may be of some value. When students must get from one item to another e.g. get from 108 to 8 in two mathematical moves, rather than looking for a rule or lesson, they will look for the easiest way to get there. Instead, a mixture of looking at worked examples, studying completed tasks with missing steps in them or working backwards from an answer may be more useful in attempting to facilitate learning.

Professional learning groups: The story so far… – Charlotte Sivner

In November we held our first Professional Learning Meeting for all teaching staff. Colleagues had previously chosen which group to be a part of. Options include: ‘The Psychology of Learning’, ‘A-Level Mindset’ and ‘ICT to Support Learning’. At the first meeting, groups were left to discuss where their journey would take them this year with respect to their own professional development. This involved identifying what it is they are already doing and what they would like to go on to achieve. Some groups began identifying action points for the next term. With the next meeting fast approaching on Monday 6th February, this seemed like a good opportunity to give you a round-up of where some of the groups have got to so far with their thinking.

The group focusing on ‘Teaching Mixed Ability, High Quality Explanations & Excellent Questioning’ agreed to begin reading relevant blogs and books as well as observing a colleague (secondary or primary) and then think about putting into practice of a few chosen techniques. Some colleagues are going to try to dream up new and novel ideas and have a go at them to see if they work. By March the group hope to share any ‘top tips’ and/or experiences of trying the questioning techniques or mixed ability grouping. By June they are aiming to review and refine our top techniques and possibly produce a top tips for questioning and mixed ability grouping booklet or resource for all staff to use.

In the ‘ICT to Support Learning’ group, a few colleagues will soon begin trialling Chromebooks. As many of our systems are increasingly moving online (Firefly/Classcharts/OneDrive + VDI), they are initially proving to be quite a quick, effective and mobile way of accessing most of what we would need to on a day to day basis as a teacher, in terms of ICT. This, combined with the continued development of the way in which we use Firefly, OneDrive and ClassCharts, as well as the imminent introduction of Firefly 6, promises to be an exciting one.

The group developing their expertise in SEN will undertake some external CPD training at Ashgrove Primary School and the ‘Psychology of Learning’ group have begun to look at insights into the psychology of learning with the aim of using cognitive scientific research to inform their practice. More specifically, they are interested in the psychology of retention, particularly with the introduction of linear courses. Individually, many colleagues are carrying out invaluable reading to inform their practice; this is fantastic so please continue to make use of the CPD books available in the Staff Library.

In summary, many groups have started to set the wheels in motion with regards to their own professional development over the coming academic year. With this in mind, please take some time to ensure you familiarise yourself with the Firefly discussion board for your group, as well as thinking about your own professional development journey and what it is you are hoping to achieve this year within your Professional Learning Group. The proforma on which to summarise your research and findings (to be completed by 19th June) is below, as a reminder.

Charlotte Sivner

Teaching & Learning Coordinator






Helping our students to remember: ten strategies – Victoria Littler

The original blog can be found here:

How do we help our students to retain information, particularly quotations and facts?

It is an age-old question, but it is a very good one. It is not about producing unthinking parrots that squawk out facts and quotations and exhibit little understanding of their meaning; instead, the automatic memorisation of information helps to free up the working memory of our students so that they can make insightful interpretations and evaluate meaning more easily.

We need to help our students remember the content of the material, but be able to show their deep understanding of them too. So rather than focusing on just the memory of the words, we need to attend to the meaning of the words as well. Happily, by elaborating on the meaning of the quotation, it proves easier to remember by rote too. It is a win-win!

In essence, we need to give our students multiple tools to do this job of memorising and making inferences and insights. If a singular quotation, for instance, has multiple different memory cues, such as a visual symbol that helps them remember the meaning of a key word or phrase in the quote, then they are more likely to both embed that quotation in their long-term memory and then to retrieve it when they need to do so. Here are some handy tips to do just that:

  1. Remember, remember… rhymes and mnemonics. Creating little rhymes and mnemonics is a classic strategy for memorising quotations. It draws upon a few memory principles. First, repetition. We better remember the rhythms and patterns of speech and song. By utilising this predilection for rhythm, stress and repeating phrases and words orally, we give students an easy cue for remembering the information.
  2. Spaced repetition of information. We know from over a hundred years of memory research (seek out Herman Ebbinghaus’ ‘forgetting curve’ from 1885) that we gradually forget facts over time – no surprise there! This can help us mitigate memory loss. For example, if you are learning five quotes from ‘Romeo & Juliet’, then you could practice and annotate the notes on Monday, then have a quick reminder on Wednesday and a quiz at the end of the quiz. If you return to that quiz in two months, you make students struggle, but in a way that helps them remember. This notion of ‘retrieval practice’ is crucial for remembering material in volume. We therefore need to support students with our lesson planning and curriculum planning.
  3. Interactive quizzing. Quizzing is an age-old approach and it has stuck because it works. This low stakes testing approach is memorable because of the ‘testing effect’: we remember better when we have been tested on something. Quizzes are common but pretty much essential to good instruction that aids memory.
  4. Provide students with visual cues and symbols. We are able to cram a lot of content into our visual memory. If we asked students to list the objects in their room they would do a decent job; however, if we first gave them time to visualise that same room, they’d likely increase their powers of recall. Good readers visualise all the time. We need to make the strategy explicit, drawing out symbols and connecting visual ideas. Using images associated with quotations offers our students vital memory cues.
  5. Build the ‘memory palace’ of quotations and facts. The ‘memory palace’ is a strategy that is thousands of years old. You create a palace, or a humble house, with multiple rooms. You then compartmentalise the rooms and start to allocate different quotations or pieces of information to different rooms, linking these to objects. Put simply, it draws upon the power of visualisation from point 4, helping create a coherent narrative between bits of information.
  6. Only connect…the story and the material. Students are often good at remembering single facts, but they are then unable to skilfully connect them up. Now, we know that stories are psychologically privileged in the human mind, so we can connect the different quotes/facts to a narrative. I am a fan of remembering quotes/facts in chronological order for this very reason and I often encourage students to retell the story of the novel or play through that quotation/fact sequence.
  7. Shorter quotations, with a narrower focus. Students, left to their own devices, will think that learning long quotations are more effective: simply, long is better. The reality is that this approach clogs up their working memory. If they focus more on individual words, phrases and shorter quotations, then will be more likely to generate in-depth explanations of those shorter quotations – the stuff of exam success.
  8. Fewer facts and quotes, but deeper. Some students are adept at learning lots and lots of these. The issue is not simply a student knowing 40 useful things; it is about knowing perhaps 15 things in great depth. Put simply, fewer, in this case is more.
  9. ‘Just a minute’ meaning rehearsal. One key approach to having deeper quotation/fact knowledge is to demand that students remember the quote/fact AND the many associated meanings (if there aren’t any multiple meanings, is it a good quotation/fact to recall?). Simply, ask students to talk for ‘just a minute’ on an individual quotation. If they can’t then they may have another go later. Also, if they can’t, others fill the gap. It becomes an interesting and interactive approach to pooling insight & knowledge.
  10. Promote ‘word consciousness’. Students too often remember the quotation but have a superficial understanding, or a singular insight, into meaning. By promoting ‘word consciousness’, we get students to look at layers of meanings within words. For example, a key word in ‘A Christmas Carol’ is misanthropic (misanthropic comes from the Greek: ‘miso’ – hating; ‘anthropos’ – man. People who hate people i.e. Scrooge). We should go to town on teaching these crucial vocabulary choices so that students understand the etymology of the word, thereby enhancing their depth of word knowledge and making the quotation more likely to stick in their memory.

Professional Learning Groups: a whistle-stop tour – Victoria Littler

What are PLGs?

Professional Learning Groups are teams of colleagues who have been grouped according to an interest such as: ‘Teaching the most able’ or ‘A-Level mind set’. These groupings will remain consistent for the entirety of the academic year and form the basis of the school’s Continued Professional Development program during the 2016-2017 cycle.

What is their purpose?

The purpose of these groups is to establish a professional learning environment with a clear area of focus. The groups should be working towards improving and evaluating pupil outcomes and developing teachers’ practice.

Within these groups, the expectation is that colleagues will engage with reading materials (books and blogs) to enhance their existing knowledge within their chosen field: ‘development should be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise’ (Teachers’ Professional Development Standards).

The research carried out by staff members will entail trialling and evaluating the impact of a teaching and learning strategy. For instance, the ‘Psychology of Learning’ group might trial, informally, the effectiveness of testing and spacing, varying the time used to ‘space’ teaching and testing to find an optimum retention level for students. At the end of the year, staff will be required to complete a proforma which will outline what they have done over the year. A ‘teach meet’ event will also take place to give colleagues the opportunity to share good practice and learn more about projects undertaken by other groups.

Half termly meetings, as well as the Firefly discussion boards, will provide a chance for the group to come together and engage in thoughtful discussion.

Reading resources, discussion forums and assignments can be found on Firefly:




The dates for the PLG meetings are below:

Monday 26th September

Monday 10th October (Fallibroome TM)

Monday 28th November

Monday 6th February

Monday 20th March

Monday 19th June

Quicker marking, effective feedback – Helena Clarke

I am well aware that some of my marking workload is self-inflicted. Why did I choose to teach history?! However, I chose to teach history because I love the subject and surely that has to be a central reason for our choices. That said, with a timetable mainly orientated around exam classes, I struggle. Marking at KS3 is also heavy, but the sheer volume of work produced by A level students, in particular, can make for a poor social life. In addition to this, I am not convinced that all the time I spend poring over essays is having that much of an effect. Feedback is really important, students need to know how to improve, but should that involve me writing comments over their essays that they may not even read. The grade is what they want – after that, for many reading further is simply meaningless (in their minds).

It is because of endless weekends and evenings spent with my nose in books and over essays that I have decided that something needs to change. This is a work in progress, so I still haven’t got the balance right but here are a few suggestions for more effective marking and feedback.


1 – Don’t mark classwork – I know that this is an approach being followed by many departments. I do think we need to read what is done in class but there is no need to add comments. Instead consider a whole class marking sheet. Simply read the work, write down any misconceptions; take a note of who is not doing the work so you can challenge them in the lesson; take a note of who is doing well so you can praise them and note any common SPaG errors. These can then be fed back in the next lesson using PPT slides and teacher explanation. You can also keep the sheets (which I also use for assessments and essays) in a file ready for parents evening, to either praise or challenge a student. I often forget specifics so useful evidence.

2 – Marking codes – when marking homework or exam questions I have started to note down WWW/EBI on a sheet and I number them as I go along. On the students work I just write down the number of the corresponding comment. When feeding back, I put the comments on a PPT slide so the students can then find out what the numbers mean and write down the comments. I am hoping that this means they take some notice of the comments because they have to actually physically write them down. I then explain the comments further. I have been doing this at all key stages.

3 – Peer assessment – I rarely use self-assessment because I find this less accurate but I have been making KS4/5 peer-assess every exam question/essay possible. The rationale is that they should understand what is expected of them and the best way is if they become the examiner. It is worth trying to change who marks the work so that it is not their best friend all the time! I have found that the vast majority of students become very accurate at marking. I ask them to choose a level (and a mark if they feel that possible) and to write a comment for both WWW/EBI. I do then take these essays in – some don’t and this may be an approach worth considering – but if the comments are accurate I can simply tick them. I currently still sometimes write comments but am moving towards marking codes. I am in the process of breaking the habit of making lots of comments! I need to try and use this process at KS3, I sometimes do but a more consistent approach would help embed the culture of peer assessment.

4 – Before they hand their work in – ask the students if they have read through their answer. The first time I did this I was shocked as hardly anyone had. It is worth going through what was expected of them with regard to the work and allowing them time to correct their errors. I think this is effective but don’t do this enough due to the fact that it leads to chasing up students. I am often not as effective at this as I need to be.

Further thoughts: I am a fan of twitter and have read countless blogs on marking and feedback. I have noted the ones I found most useful below. One suggestion is not to grade work – I struggle with this for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that I think it is useful for students to know what level they are working at. (I can see the arguments otherwise). The other is reporting and data – there is such requirement to enter data that I feel compelled to grade work (I think parents value this too – rightly or wrongly). But this could be useful in terms of students actually focusing on what we say instead of feeling upset that they have not achieved what they wanted, or feeling content that they are fine and therefore not pushing themselves.

And as for how much homework is set and whether that needs marking – that’s for another day…

A useful link: some kind teacher has put lots of ideas/research/blogs etc. together. Look in particular at the practical ideas section.

Some links, from this page, that I thought were really useful: