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Mercredi, 06 Septembre 2017 10:43

Cognitive load theory

Research that teachers really need to understand

Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation

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What does cognitive load theory mean for teaching practice?


Explicit teaching

The question of how people learn best has been the subject of significant debate, which can be broadly divided into two approaches to teaching practice. On one side are those who believe that all people learn best when allowed to discover or construct some or all of the information themselves (for example, Bruner 1961; Papert 1980; Steffe & Gale 1995). On the other side are those who believe that learners do best when they are provided with explicit instructional guidance in which teachers clearly show students what to do and how to do it (for example Klahr & Nigam 2004; Mayer 2004; Rosenshine 1986). Cognitive load theory provides theoretical and empirical support for the latter, explicit model of instruction. Leading theorists of cognitive load argue:

Decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices (comprising virtually all students), direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance. So, when teaching new content and skills to novices, teachers are more effective when they provide explicit guidance accompanied by practice and feedback, notwhen they require students to discover many aspects of what they must learn.
(Clark, Kirschner & Sweller 2012, p. 6, see also Kirschner, Sweller & Clark 2006)

It is important to note that cognitive load theorists do not advocate using all aspects of explicit instruction all the time. Indeed, they recognise the need for learners to be given the opportunity to work in groups and solve problems independently – but assert this should be used as a means for practicing newly learnt content and skills, not to discover information themselves (Clark, Kirschner & Sweller 2012, p. 6).

Andrew Martin (2016), for example, advocates a teaching model that is explicitly designed around cognitive load theory and the constraints of working memory. He suggests, however, that less structured approaches can also be an effective instructional method for students who are further along the novice/expert continuum if such instruction is designed with the constraints of working memory in mind.

These approaches are aimed at promoting learner independence while managing cognitive load appropriately, depending on the learner’s novice/expert status ... If theinstructor provides some guiding principles, prior information, signposts along the way, and scaffolds and assistance where needed, there is less burden on working memory.
(Martin 2016, p. 39)

There is some research to suggest that managing the cognitive load of learners through explicit instruction may also contribute to higher levels of motivation and engagement – although further research is required in this field (Martin 2016).

In addition to supporting explicit modes of instruction, cognitive load theory also asserts that teaching domain-specific skills is more effective than teaching generic skills (Paas &Sweller 2012; Tricot & Sweller 2014). An example of a domain-specific skill might be that, when faced with a problem such as a / b = c, solve for a, one should multiply both sides by the denominator (Sweller 2016, p. 13). An example of a generic skill in mathematics might be general ‘problem-solving’ skills, such as the strategy of randomly generating moves until the correct solution is found. Cognitive load theorists suggest teaching domain-specific skills is more effective because, while general problem-solving skills are innate to humans and therefore do not need to be explicitly taught, domain-specific skills are not automatically acquired by learners without explicit teaching (Geary 2012; Tricot & Sweller 2014).