Understanding “Understanding” Part II

A post where we explore some concepts required to define understanding in a cognitive load theory framework.

In my last blog post, I briefly summarized element interactivity. When elements must be processed in working memory simultaneously due to them being logically connected, we say the elements have high element interactivity. By supporting schemata development in our pedagogical practices, we can combat the strain on working memory that element interactivity causes. There are also two other ideas to keep in mind when reflecting on our pedagogy: intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load. I would like the topic of this post to be dedicated to summarizing and exploring these topics.

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

Working memory load that is imposed by the intrinsic nature of the information we are trying to process is known as intrinsic cognitive load. Perhaps this can be explained nicely through the use of an example.

First, let’s think about solving for ? in the addition statement 3 + 5 = ?. We have seen that, for novice learners, there are many elements to process here, leading to high element interactivity. Novice learners may have to process all of these elements separately, perhaps first counting to three, then counting up again to eight. In this instance, the high element interactivity causes intrinsic cognitive load. It would be a significant challenge to process anything else in working memory since all of the processing power is dedicated to making sense of the symbols and using the counting-up strategy.

For those who know the fact that 3 + 5 = 8, this whole element can enter working memory, freeing up processing space. For expert learners with well-built schemata, this problem has low intrinsic cognitive load since they are able to interpret all the symbols in 3+5 = ? as one unit, and come up with a solution to their interpretation quickly.

In summary, information can have either high or low element interactivity. High element interactivity necessarily leads to high intrinsic cognitive load due to the complex nature of the information. This is especially evident in novice learners. However, as schemata develop in these areas, learners are able to process the interactions of the elements more efficiently, decreasing intrinsic cognitive load.


Extraneous Cognitive Load

Working memory load imposed by instructional design is called extraneous cognitive load. For example, open-ended problem solving is a challenge for novice learners since they may be unsure of where to focus their attention. Too much working memory capacity is being used to understand the teaching pedagogy, that little to no information can be learned. Based on the Borrowing & Reorganizing Principle, as well as the Narrow Limits of Change Principle, direct instruction through studying worked examples provides one of the best practices for learning novel information. In general, studying worked examples with expert instruction has low extraneous load. In novel situations with new information, instruction with little to no structure leads to high extraneous cognitive load.

Of course, this comes with some caveats, as worked examples can be structured poorly. The way the instructor approaches examples can also lead to high extraneous load. For instance, when working on related rates problems in calculus, most instructors will read the entire question, then proceed to working through the problem. Due to the high element interactivity and intrinsic load present in these types of problems, solving the problem using the typical approach causes high extraneous load in novice learners. A better approach comes through understanding the Split Attention Effect: interweave solution steps with information from the problem to decrease extraneous load.

Instructional Implications

We have seen that when there are many interacting elements in a given problem, intrinsic load is necessarily high for novice learners. As instructors, our primary focus should be on schemata formation, as this leads to decreased intrinsic load. Well-built schemata also enter working memory as single elements, freeing up more processing space for other novel information.

When information is presented in a way that causes the learner to focus on aspects unrelated to the problem, this creates unnecessary extraneous cognitive load, leading to decreased working memory capacity. To combat this, we can present novel information through the use of direct instruction & studying worked examples. This will free up working memory by decreasing extraneous cognitive load. As our learners move from novice to expert learners, it becomes easier to vary our teaching pedagogy, as well-built schemata help to decrease intrinsic load in instances when extraneous load is high.


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