Active Learning and Cognitive Load

by Justin Skycak on

The goal of active learning is not to blow up a student's cognitive load. It's actually the opposite -- to get students actively retrieving information from memory, while minimizing their cognitive load.

Cross-posted from here.

The goal of this post is to clear up some confusion about active learning and cognitive load. Apparently some people think that the goal of active learning is to increase cognitive load. This is not true.

Active Learning

In order for students to have learned something, they need to be able to consistently reproduce that information and use it to solve problems. None of these things happen when students watch a lecture, even if they understand it perfectly. The same reasoning applies to watching videos, reading books, re-reading notes, and all other passive learning techniques. If students don’t actively practice retrieving information from memory, it doesn’t get written to memory. It just falls out of their brain.

Relationship with Cognitive Load

Now, here’s the thing. The goal of active learning is not to blow up a student’s cognitive load. It’s actually the opposite – to get students actively retrieving information from memory, while minimizing their cognitive load.

When a student has a heavy cognitive load, their working memory is running low on processing power, which means that

  • they will have a harder time noticing general patterns and seeing the forest for the trees, and
  • they'll be more likely to fail in their attempts to retrieve information from long-term memory.

This is why it’s so important to scaffold instructional material and introduce new material only after prerequisites have been learned. New material needs to be

  • broken down into bite-sized pieces small enough that no piece overloads any student's working memory, and
  • introduced after the prerequisites have been learned so that the prerequisite knowledge can be pulled from long-term memory without taxing working memory.

Issues with Pure Discovery & Radical Constructivist Learning

Unfortunately, that’s where some extremist non-traditional approaches get it wrong: they get students performing activities, but they don’t minimize cognitive load, and students just spend the whole time in a state of cognitive overload, getting nowhere.

Optimally active learning doesn’t mean that students never watch and listen. It just means that students are actively and successfully solving problems as soon as possible following a minimum effective dose of initial explanation, and they spend the vast majority of their time actively and successfully solving problems.

Reality vs Perception of Learning

Finally, there’s one catch: even if students are engaged in optimally active learning, they’re typically not going to perceive it as being optimal. Active learning produces more learning by increasing cognitive activation, but students mistakenly interpret that extra cognitive effort as an indication that they are not learning as well, when in fact the opposite is true.

The important keyword here is “desirable difficulty,” which refers to a practice condition that makes the task harder, slowing down the learning process yet improving recall and transfer.

Active learning creates a desirable difficulty that makes class feel more challenging but improves learning. Passive learning, on the other hand, promotes an illusion of comprehension in which students (and their teachers) overestimate their knowledge because they are not made to exercise it.

Further Reading

Here’s a draft that I’m working on that goes into all this stuff (and more) in way more detail with over 300 references and relevant quotes pulled out of those references.