Information Processing Approach in the Classroom

We previously reviewed the Information Processing Approach to cognition, but how do teachers apply this approach to teaching and learning?

Cognitive Load Theory

The information-processing model has given rise to a theory of instructional design called cognitive load theory (Sweller & Chandler, 1994; van Merriënboer & Sweller, 2005). Because working memory is the principal player in the process of learning new information, cognitive load theory focuses exclusively on working memory. The gist of this theory is that there are distinct types of demands imposed upon working memory during learning: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. We now examine each of these.

Video 4.7.1. Cognitive Load Theory explained.

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

Intrinsic cognitive load represents the burden imposed on working memory by the inherent nature of the material. In other words, simple topics require very little processing capacity in working memory, and complex topics demand a large amount of space. For example, it requires considerably more focus to safely drive a semi-truck through a rainstorm than to sign your name with a pen on paper. Driving the semi requires attention to many different information inputs (e.g., gauges, mirrors, windshield) and coordinating the requisite motor skills in response; all of this processing is conducted in working memory. Signing one’s name takes barely any attention at all (for adults) because it has been done thousands of times before. Thus, the effect of having practiced the skill reduces its intrinsic cognitive load.

But practice alone cannot reduce the intrinsic cognitive load of all tasks. The element interactivity (i.e., coordination among multiple aspects) inherent in some tasks cannot ultimately reduce the task to a trivial activity, even with extensive practice. If that were the case, we should all be capable of becoming skilled airline pilots or successful politicians.

For beginners learning an essential skill, element interactivity becomes problematic and must be temporarily reduced. When learning a language, one first learns the alphabet and then proceeds to acquire simple words or phrases—not complex prose. But one cannot be considered proficient in a language unless one can understand its complex prose. This is an example of element interactivity because understanding prose depends upon not only understanding its nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc., but also how each of them modifies or alters the meaning of other words nearby. Topics or skills that contain element interactivity must at first be oversimplified and then gradually built up to their full complexity before one can successfully deal with the intrinsic cognitive load.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

Extraneous cognitive load is the set of mental demands that are irrelevant to the current task, consuming precious cognitive resources yet not providing any real benefit to the task of understanding. It is critical to realize that various forms of cognitive load are additive—that is, they each increase the amount of processing space that is active in working memory. For example, if the intrinsic load is already high, there is not much room for any extraneous load unless the learner decides (like Pierre) to reduce the processing of the intrinsic load and focus more on the extraneous load. Teachers should strive to reduce extraneous cognitive load in their classrooms because students are likely to sacrifice attention to important material and distract themselves with the extraneous stimuli.

Extraneous cognitive load is, for the most part, under the direct control of the teacher. Have you ever seen presentations that were decorated with graphics that were only tangentially related to the content? You probably found yourself sidelined by the images and not paying sufficient attention to the material itself. Because working memory has such a limited capacity, we cannot afford to “clutter up” this valuable space with unproductive ideas that divert attention from more important content. As a teacher, you should make earnest efforts to avoid exposing students to extra “fluff” during learning activities.

How To Reduce Extraneous Cognitive Load

Video 4.7.2. Cognitive Load Theory, How Do I Apply It? provides some suggestions for how to reduce extraneous cognitive load in the presentation of information.

Germane Cognitive Load

Germane cognitive load has been explained in various ways. The explanation I prefer is the more traditional characterization that germane load represents increased demand upon working memory in the service of the learning goal. This can be explained more easily through an example. Most (if not all) languages have forms of expression that are not appropriate for all audiences. For example, in English one would not address the President of the United States in the same informal way as one would address a close friend (“How is your day going, Mr. President?” versus “Hey dude, whazzup?”). The meaning of the utterance expressed to these two individuals may be the same, but the words and intonation are somewhat different. If an international student were learning English, it would be important for the language teacher to communicate not only the meaning of the words (intrinsic load) but also the contexts in which those words are appropriate (germane load). Learning the situations in which certain phrases are most appropriately used goes beyond intrinsic load but could hardly be considered extraneous if one’s purpose is to learn the language well.

It goes without saying that beginning learners should not be exposed to germane cognitive load; the intrinsic load for many tasks is of sufficient complexity that beginners cannot handle any additional processing burdens. However, as learning proceeds and the intrinsic load becomes more and more automatized, teachers can add aspects of additional complexity that enhance students’ understanding of the material in a germane way.

Principles of Effective Learning

We now turn to a few empirical principles, derived from decades of research, that are known to improve learning. These principles will not all apply to every learning situation; however, each of them has been sufficiently demonstrated through carefully controlled scientific studies to merit mentioning them here.

The overarching goal here is to select processing strategies that will increase the likelihood of a learner recalling new information at a later point in time.

Activate Prior Knowledge

One of the most important cognitive principles for a teacher to keep in mind is the importance of relating information from long-term memory to information newly entering the system. Recall our discussion of elaborative rehearsal earlier, in which I indicated that making a connection to prior knowledge is a superior learning method to simply repeating information over and over without altering it.

Any good lesson-plan format begins the class with some form of prior-knowledge activation. It might be a reminder or a brief review of what was studied in the previous day’s lesson, or it could be a question similar to, “Have you ever had a problem you couldn’t solve?” The purpose of this phase of the lesson is to activate prior knowledge–i.e., bring long-term memories back into working memory–so that new knowledge can be mingled with old with the result of more solid understanding of the new (and perhaps even the old) information.

Organization

This is one principle that applies to a rather restricted set of instructional situations, but it is so powerful that it deserves mention here. In contexts where there is a list of items to commit to memory, the task of memorizing the list will be much easier if the items are grouped together (i.e., organized) in a meaningful way. This also works as a basic memory strategy in everyday life—think about your latest visit to the grocery store and imagine remembering a rather random assortment of items versus grouping the dairy items together, the produce items together, etc.

Deep Processing

It is easy to become convinced that if a student spends, say, twenty hours reviewing for an exam, that student should be expected to excel on the exam. However, cognitive studies show that it is not specifically the time one spends studying that matters most; what one does during that time matters even more.

Consider, for example, the all-too-common exam-preparation strategy of using flashcards. Students often take terms from the textbook or class discussions, write them down on flashcards, and then rehearse what is written down until the flashcards are memorized. Such a student will walk into the exam confident that the material has been thoroughly mastered. The problem with this approach to studying is that the student has only done “surface-level processing” of the material, rather than “deep” processing. It is surface-level because the student has memorized terms and definitions rather than truly understanding the meaning and applications of those concepts.

Deep processing happens when one uses elaborative rehearsal to connect a concept to other concepts that are already known or are being learned. For example, one could write a summary of a concept in one’s own words to check for comprehension. Another approach to facilitate deep processing is to think of examples of the newly learned concept from one’s own life. One could even make up fictitious examples of the concept if no examples come to mind from one’s past experience.

The point is, learning that comes from surface-level processing is not durable. One does not remember the content of flashcards for very long after the exam. But spending the same amount of time (or even less time) meaningfully engaged with the to-be-learned ideas can result in learning that could last for a lifetime.

Distributed Practice

There is one final principle for effective learning that must be mentioned here. To be the most effective learner, one should “space” or “distribute” one’s studying over a period of time. Attempting to cram a lot of learning into one or two concentrated study sessions rarely works. Research cannot prescribe the specific number or length of study sessions required to maximize learning—there are too many variables to account for (e.g., one’s prior knowledge of the topic, one’s knowledge of related topics, the quality of one’s study strategies, etc.). But the benefits of distributing one’s study sessions over a period of time are well documented in the research literature.