Friday, February 5, 2016

Fixing Courses with Cognitive Load Theory

Greetings from Australasian Computer Science Week (ACSW 2016) at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, where Dr Raina Mason, from Southern Cross University (SCU) is speaking on "Using Cognitive Load Theory to improve troublesome courses". They have a paper with Cooper and Wilks (2015) applying this to teaching mobile app development.

The idea with using Cognitive Load Theory is provide students with links between items, so as not to overload the student, so that what they are learning goes into their long term memory. The short term working memory can only hold nine items at once and only for a few seconds. If they are presented with too many apparently random items, the student will not be able to remember it.

Dr. Mason and her colleagues have produced the "Cognitive Assistance Factor Evaluation" (CAFE') toolkit, to help with course design. I was able to register and start using the tool during the workshop. I ran my "ICT Sustainability" course through the toolkit, which took only a few minutes. The tool asks a series of questions about the course and then presents some recommendations. Obviously this information could have simply be presented in booklet form, but the step by step process is useful. Here are the ones I got:

"Suggestions from your Course Evaluation

Based on your answers to this evaluation tool, the following comments and suggestions are offered for your consideration.

General Factors

Reduce Extraneous Cognitive Load

Using multiple memory modes

The best way to present an explanation of a diagram is via verbal commentary. This allows incoming content to be divided between visual and auditory channels. For this reason, the best way to present information explaining complex diagrams in your course is via screencasts of common activities with highlighting synchronised with audio explanations.
For more information see Reduce Extraneous Load: modality effect.
This audio commentary, however, should be provided without explanatory text on the diagram itself. The only text on the diagram should be labels if necessary.
For more information see Reduce Extraneous Load: redundancy effect.

Remove unnecessary elements

Provide external memory support to reduce working memory load

It is preferable to provide students with as many external memory aids as possible. Some examples of these for a course would be
* check-lists
* exam support sheets ("cheat-sheets"), and
* summaries
These external memory supports reduce load on working memory and allow students to direct limited memory resources to learning. As learner expertise increases, these memory aids can be reduced or faded.
For more information see Reduce Extraneous Load: external memory aids.

Use segmenting, sequencing and student pacing to present content gradually

When students are required to design and produce original works, the best approach is one where students are initially provided with example works and given opportunities to use and familiarise with these works, only then moving on to modify the work and create their own works. This approach allows management of working memory and schema acquisition and elaboration. Students first are able to familiarise themselves with the type of works they will eventually create. They build schema for using these works, without overloading memory by attempting to create works at the same time. Modification of the work then allows management of the cognitive load on working memory through chunking and segmentation. When schemas for modification and using the work are well established, students can then turn their attention to design tasks and creating their own work.
For more information see Reduce Extraneous Load: segmentation.
Students should be given control over pacing as much as possible. In the case of a whole course, it is preferable if students are free to pace as they see fit provided that they have completed all materials by the end of the course.
For practical reasons, this is usually not possible, and if so students should be free to pace as they see fit provided that they complete all assignments by the due dates.
For more information see Reduce Extraneous Load: segmentationeffect and Learner Expertise Differences.

Transition from worked examples to independent performance

The best educational approach for your cohort of students is to start with direct instruction, with many worked examples. This should be followed by faded worked examples, and then move to problem-solving and guided discovery learning after your students have reached a reasonable level of expertise.
For more information see Reduce Extraneous Load: worked examples effect.

Promote germane load

Accommodate differences in student expertise

High performing students should be given access to extension materials in order to elaborate and consolidate their schemas.
For more information, see Learner Expertise Differences." From: "Cognitive Assistance Factor Evaluation" (CAFE') toolkit


Mason, R., Cooper, G., & Wilks, B. (2015). Using Cognitive Load Theory to select an Environment for Teaching Mobile Apps Development. Retrieved from

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