What is ‘Cognitive Load Theory’?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

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Accompanying video (What is ‘Cognitive Load Theory’?):

It was a cold winter morning in Bangor, North Wales (UK). The year was 2004, and I was a second-year molecular biology bachelor’s student at Bangor University. My professor had given my group of students the task of finding a genetics-related research paper from any academic journal in the library, and then breaking it down into simple language so that we could present our findings to the rest of the class.

The task was incredibly difficult! In fact, it was so difficult, that it’s up there with one of the most cognitively demanding tasks I’ve ever completed. The paper our group selected centered-on ‘apoptosis’ (that’s when cells basically ‘commit suicide’), but the context and language of the paper was so specialized that the majority of what was written in it went right over our heads. The research had been written by PhD-level and post-doctoral experts and specialists.

We we’re 21-year-old kids who’d recently finished our ‘A’ – Levels.

Nowadays, educational experts would argue that the ‘cognitive load’ of the paper was too much for us to glean anything significant from it. We didn’t even have the language skills to understand what most of the paper was describing.

Difficulty vs. Pace

Cognitive Load Theory is a research-based tool for assessing the difficulty and pace of the tasks, assignments and instruction we deliver in-class to our students. In essence, when difficulty is high and pace is fast, then the cognitive load is high. When difficulty is low, and the pace is slow, then the cognitive load is also low.

That’s a very simplified synopsis, however. According to Mindtools.com, Cognitive Load Theory “takes a scientific approach to the design of learning materials, so that they present information at a pace and level of complexity that the learner can fully understand.”

“An AMAZING book!”

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) builds on earlier models of memory and knowledge retention (such as the Atkinson and Shiffrin model of human information processing) and was developed in 1998 by psychologist John Sweller. The theory is considered to be the most modern and ‘up-to-date’ explanation of how memory is developed and stored. In the past 5 or so years, the theory has gained momentum and popularity in teaching circles, thanks in some part to Dylan William’s iconic tweet of 2017:

I’ve taken the excellent image below from a 2015 research paper by Edwards, Aris and Shukor, and I’ve modified it slightly to highlight what I believe to be the key takeaways:

Key points to bear in-mind about CLT:

  • Keep unnecessary, superfluous material to a minimum (e.g. news articles that may be topical and interesting, but link tentatively to the content that the kids actually need to learn for the final exam).
  • Increase exposure to actual, relevant learning material (this is called ‘intrinsic load’). This may include textbook sections, websites, learning software and summaries.
  • Present information through all of the senses (use movement, action, practical activities and outdoor activities where possible). See my blog posts on outdoor learning and spatial learning for more tips on how to embed this.
  • Practice, practice and practice some more! Use past-exam paper questions, quizzes (e.g. Kahoot!, Quizlet and BBC Bitesize), textbook questions and exam-style questions to really get the students to process the information they have learned. This is called ‘Germane load’, and it must be maximized in order to create long-term memory.

Recommended video

UKEd Academy discussion on Cognitive Load Theory with Steve Garnett (author of Cognitive Load Theory: A handbook for teachers):

Bibliography and references

Mind Tools Content Team (2016) Cognitive Load Theory. Available at https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/cognitive-load-theory.htm (Accessed 18th October 2020)

Atkinson, R.C.; Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). “Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes”. In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T. (eds.). The psychology of learning and motivation2. New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

Edwards, B., Aris, B., Shukor, M. (2015). “Cognitive Load Implications of Social Media in Teaching and Learning”. Journal of Multidisciplinary Engineering Science and Technology (JMEST). Vol. 2 Issue 11, November – 2015.

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Good Teachers Are Also Good Students

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Accompanying video:

I have always loved mathematics, but I’ve not always been ‘good’ at maths. I got a grade A for GCSE Mathematics when I was 16 years old (a grade I worked really, really hard for) but I struggled with mathematics at ‘AS’ and ‘A’ – Level (the UK’s pre-university qualifications). 

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“An AMAZING Book!”

It just so happened that mathematics wasn’t a subject I needed as a prerequisite for my university course anyway. So, in a sense, I committed the cardinal sin of thinking that it ‘didn’t matter’. I was planning to study molecular biology at university, and my admissions tutors were mainly interested in my biology and chemistry grades.

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I achieved my goal of going to uni and doing my PGCE in order to become a fully qualified Science teacher in 2006. I was happy for several years, but my failure to complete my mathematics education at school kept gnawing at me like an annoying itch. I needed to do something about it. 

I decided to complete the Certificate in Mathematics course with the Open University in 2009, after three years of being a full-time science teacher. This course covered everything in my ‘A’-Level syllabus with some extra, university-level topics thrown in. It was challenging and offered me just what I needed: closure. As a distance-learning course, it also offered me the chance to study and work as a teacher at the same time. 

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As I started studying the course and handing in assignments (which had to be snail mailed to the UK  – I was living in Thailand at the time), I began to realise how much I had become disconnected from the student experience as a teacher. It had been around three years since I had ever studied anything seriously, and this mathematics course was teaching me how difficult it was to:

  • Meet deadlines
  • Seek help when in doubt
  • Have the self-discipline needed to study at a regular time-slot each day

These skills were, of course, things I had to do whilst completing my degree course and schooling earlier in life, but it had been a few years since I had been immersed in serious study like this. I was slowly losing empathy for my students: that was until this course gave me a wake-up call. 

Another big thing I took from this experience was just how stressful it can be to prepare for a difficult exam (and to complete it). I had to fly to the UK to take the end of course mathematics exam (a three hour beast), and along with the intense revision that came in the few days running up to the exam I had the misfortune of not sleeping so well the night before the big day. And then, once sat down and actually completing the paper, three hours felt like it went by in an instant.

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I guess I’m trying to make a number of points in this trip down Memory Lane – namely that by immersing ourselves in the ‘student experience’ we can, as teachers:

  • Regain, or enhance, our true understanding of just how many hurdles await our students on their race to the exam finish-line.
  • Learn new skills and concepts that can be applied to our roles as classroom managers, leaders and ‘purveyors’ of specialist knowledge.
  • Build self-discipline, and pass on the lessons learned to our students in our roles as mentors, homeroom teachers, form tutors and coaches.

One final point to stress is that, whilst we can study almost any subject we want via online platforms like EdX and Coursera these days, it’s also important that we take the time to thoroughly reflect on a regular basis. Keeping a journal of things we’ve done well, and things we messed up, can be a great way to have a written record to read over when we want to celebrate successes and remind ourselves of lessons we have learned on our journeys as educators. This video I made a few years ago goes into this in more detail:

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International Teaching: Dealing With Culture Shock When Moving to a New Country

Teaching internationally can be very rewarding and enjoyable. You’ll most certainly pick-up new skills, experience a new culture and become part of a new and diverse community. For some, however, the move to a new country can be a big ‘shock to the system’.

Today, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner, Admissions Director at Destination TEFL, to share her advice on how to deal with culture shock when moving to a new country.

Culture Shock – a much used term for those who travel. But what does it mean exactly?

Culture shock is what you experience after leaving the familiarities of your home culture to live in another cultural or social environment. Even those who are open-minded and well-travelled are not immune to culture shock. Symptoms include homesickness, anger, loneliness and boredom. Everyone will experience culture shock to some extent, but there are ways to deal with it and minimise the effects.

chatting in class

Firstly, understand what you are going through and why you feel insecure or anxious. You are faced with a different climate, unfamiliar with your surroundings, as well as people with different values, attitudes, lifestyles, and political and religious beliefs, and oftentimes, you can’t even understand them due to language barriers! Understanding why you feel the way you do will help you to overcome the feeling.

Once you understand, the next step is to accept and adapt to your new culture. Just because something is different, doesn’t mean it is wrong, so learn to do things the way the locals do, and accept that it’s the way it’s done in your new home.

Learn as much as possible about your destination before leaving home. Be open-mined and it will be easier to understand the differences and see things from a different perspective. If you know why people do things the way they do them, it’s easy to accept the differences.

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Having a positive attitude can make all the difference. This goes with anything in life, but is especially true when travelling and interacting with new people in new surroundings.

Block building

Stay in touch with those back home. But… if you spend all your time connecting with family and friends back home, you’ll just keep feeling homesick and won’t feel up to making new friends. Rather spend your time exploring and meeting new people, and then you have something to tell loved ones back home when you do chat.

Don’t compare your home culture to your new culture! Noticing the differences is normal, and can be fun, but see the differences as just that – different and exciting, not inferior to home. Take the opportunity to learn as much as possible about your new location and culture.

Keep yourself busy. Particularly enjoy the things you can’t do at home. Try new foods, swim in the sea, explore, make new friends, take full advantage of the time abroad rather than being afraid and hiding in your hotel room or apartment. Don’t have regrets later by saying ‘if only I had done this or seen that…’

Laugh at yourself! If you get lost, just think of it as a way to discover a new place that you didn’t expect to see. Surrounding yourself with positive people can make all the difference. Don’t get sucked into the inevitable groups of ‘grumpy old expats’ who should have gone back home long ago, and now love trashing their new home.

There are different phases of culture shock, and knowing which you are going through will also help you to overcome it.

The Honeymoon Phase: This is a fun time, when all is great, exciting, and new. You embrace the differences, go out of your way to try the weird and wonderful food and relish meeting exotic new people. This phase can last days, weeks, or months.

Continent Investigation

The Honeymoon is Over Phase: During this phase, you start observing differences, however slight, and not always in a good way. You’ve had enough of the food, and miss home comforts and tastes. The local attitudes annoy you, and things are just so much better at home. During this phase, you may feel sad, irritable, angry or anxious. You miss holidays from home such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, and feel sad when you miss out on events such as birthday celebrations back home.
 
The Negotiation Phase: Now you decide if you will give in to negativity or power-on past it to make the most of your experience. If you’re successful, you regain your sense of perspective, balance, and humour, and move on to the next phase.
 
The All’s Well, or Everything is Okay Phase: You start feeling more at home with the differences in the new culture. After a while, you may feel as if the culture isn’t in fact new, but that you belong here now, or you may not exactly feel part of the culture, but you’re comfortable enough with it to enjoy the differences and challenges. You don’t necessarily have to be in love with the new country (as in the honeymoon phase), but you can navigate it without unwarranted anxiety, negativity, and criticism.

The Reverse Culture Shock Phase: This happens to most who have lived abroad a while. Once you’ve become accustomed to the way things are done in a different country, you can go through the same series of culture shock phases when you return home.
 
Culture shock can present itself at any time, and it’s often the small things we feel the most – like navigating a grocery store with unfamiliar products in currencies we are not familiar with. Working abroad has its own challenges, as aside from day-to-day cultural differences, there are also the differences in the work place. For example, if you are typically organised and punctual, you may struggle to adapt working to a culture with a more relaxed working environment. Or, if you’re a woman, you may find it difficult to adapt in a country where there is gender inequality.
 
It’s most important to be patient – in time, things that once were strange will be the norm. Be kind to yourself, and don’t place high expectations on yourself until you have adjusted to your new life. While moving to a new country is daunting in many ways, it can be equally rewarding, and by not giving it a try, you’ll always have regrets.

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How to Ace Your Observed TEFL Lesson

Lesson observations can be nerve-wracking and stressful for many teachers. Often, this is a result of not-knowing how to effectively deal with the observation (or anticipation of it) on an emotional, professional and strategic level. Today, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner, Admissions Director at Destination TEFL, to share her advice on how to ace a TEFL lesson-observation.

Images for this guest blog post have been kindly provided by Destination TEFL and show teachers they have successful trained in-action, interacting with students. If you’re thinking of getting a TEFL qualification and teaching overseas, then Destination TEFL can help you!

There are so many things to think about when you’re being observed, that it’s easy to forget the obvious. Here are some ways to make sure you ace your observed lessons. 

Before the lesson 

This applies to observed practicums during your course: Pay attention in class! Know the correct procedures and techniques, so you know what is expected of you. 

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! Practice the steps and procedures (drilling, back-chaining etc) and practice your full lesson beforehand, on your own or with your partner. Get your classmates to act as students and let them point out any mistakes afterwards – all in good faith of course, and you do the same for them. Ask for a copy of the observation form that your observer will use and understand what they’re looking for. Your trainer should make it clear what is expected of you. 

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This will also apply should you be doing a demo lesson for a job interview. When you are called in for a demo, be sure to get all the facts beforehand, including the number and level of the students, how long the lesson will be, the topic, the facilities on site, etc. 

Have a backup for everything! Always have a spare board-marker – they have a nasty way of suddenly dying when you least need them to. Time wasted scrambling for another pen will affect your lesson time management, and the curveball will make you nervous, as well as having a knock-on effect. If you plan to show images on a projector, print the images too. If you’re giving students handouts, always have a few spares on hand in case your observer wants a copy or in case there are more students than expected. Have a safety net for every aspect of the class. Be prepared to upscale or ‘dumb-down’ the lesson in case the level of the students is not what you were expecting, so make sure activities can be adjusted accordingly. 

Have a checklist. Having an amazing board game or a fun worksheet is pointless if you leave it behind – we’ve seen this happen too many times – you can only be marked on what you actually do in class, not what you left at home. Attached to your lesson plan, have a checklist of what to bring, including a bottle of water and a sweat towel – there’s nothing worse than dripping sweat over the kids (yes, we’ve seen this happen too!) Make sure you have all your materials required for the lesson. 

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“An AMAZING book!”

Dress professionally. If you look the part, you’ll feel the part and then you’ll act the part. If you’re not confident, fake it! Soon it will be real confidence. Find out beforehand what the dress code is at the school where you’ll be conducting the lessons. If this is for your teacher practicums during the course, you will be told this beforehand, but if it’s for a demo lesson find out! Some schools for instance, insist that female teachers wear skirts, not trousers, and many schools want all tattoos covered up. 

Don’t rush and don’t leave things to the last minute! Do all your printing the day before – power outages happen and that could mean you can’t print your worksheets, lesson plan etc. make sure your computer is charged and is working. Don’t assume there will be WiFi if you need to show a YouTube clip – either download the video or make sure you can send a hotspot from your phone to the computer for internet access. On the day devote all your attention to delivering a great class, not worrying about last minute logistics. 

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During the lesson 

Stay calm. It’s natural to be nervous when being observed. Many people speak too quickly when nervous – take a deep breath and SLOW DOWN, or your students will not understand you. Smile at your students. They will smile back and this will help you to relax. 

Take note of your students. Plans should be followed… however, they should also be adapted if need be, according to your students’ levels. This is why it’s important to plan for your lesson to be adjusted both up and down, particularly for a class you have never taught before, and are not familiar with the level. Involve all your students When nervous, it’s natural to just focus on the students in the front, or those who are actively participating. Try your best to encourage all to participate. 

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Step back and read what you have written on the board. Often our brains are thinking ahead and we make silly spelling or other mistakes on the board. Take a step back and read what you have written. 

After the lesson 

Listen to the feedback, and take it to heart. Getting constructive feedback is the best opportunity for you to develop as a teacher. Sometimes, it’s not easy to hear, but the feedback given during your observed lessons on the course, is done so with the best intentions, allowing you to get the most out of the course. Avoid acting defensively, arguing with the observer and blaming the students. Instead, keep an open mind, ask for more details and note down the suggestions. 

Do a self-analysis. After each lesson, think back to what you did, and how you could have done it differently. Think about how you handled questions, unruly kids, etc and think about how you could improve. Keep a lesson journal, and take your own feedback to heart too. 

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Take responsibility. Think about what you could have done to teach a better class, not about how someone else is at fault for what went wrong in your lesson. Many people get defensive when given feedback. Blame it on naughty kids? Rather take responsibility for poor classroom management, and research classroom management techniques. Not enough time? Look at your time management skills, and how much wasted time there was in the class. 

It’s important to act on the feedback given after a lesson. If you don’t incorporate the suggestions given by your observer in your next lesson, then the feedback was pointless. Make the most of the valuable feedback session given during your course. After a demo lesson for a job interview, ask for feedback too. Your potential employer will value the fact that you are keen to improve and every good teacher knows that the best teachers never stop learning. 

Rose-Anne Turner, Admissions Director – Destination TEFL (www.destinationtefl.com)

Thoughts and reflections from Richard James Rogers

I really enjoyed reading this great blog post, Rose-Anne. Thank you for taking the time to share these great tips with our community. As a high-school Science teacher in Thailand, I found these tips to be just as helpful to me as they would be for a TEFL ‘purist’. I think your advice is beneficial for teachers in a wide-variety of different settings. 

My key-takeaways were as follows:

  • A lesson-observation needs to be dealt with strategically: this is not something that you can leave to chance, or be ad-hoc about. You need to have a plan in-place for the run-up to the lesson, the lesson itself and the after-lesson reflection process. Most teachers focus only on lesson-planning and their presence during the lesson, in my personal experience. 
  • Planning the lesson activities and meeting lesson-objectives is important, but dealing with your own emotions and mental well-being as the teacher is equally important. This aspect of preparing for a lesson-observation is often overlooked and poorly discussed in traditional teacher-training programmes, in my personal opinion.
  • I really liked the after-lesson tips: teachers need to hear no-nonsense advice like “Listen to the feedback, and take it to heart”. I really like how you encourage teachers to “take responsibility”: we live in a world of convenience coupled with flux, and this often causes adults to become resentful and play the ‘blame game’ when receiving constructive criticism. It’s important to detach any negative emotions from whatever feedback you receive, analyse what happened, and take the necessary action steps to become better next time. 

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