The role of cognitive load for learning

In this video, you'll discover the 3 processes that contribute to learning, how you can play with those processes to improve retention, and why creating killer lessons are 100% within your reach.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
22nd Jul 2021 • 3m read

If you've ever taught or mentored a student, you know that every learner has a certain cognitive capacity for learning. What you may not know is that you, as their teacher, have the power to tweak that capacity by manipulating cognitive load. In this video, you'll discover the 3 processes that contribute to learning, how you can play with those processes to improve retention, and why creating killer lessons are 100% within your reach.

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Video transcript

In a previous lesson, we learned how working memory generates knowledge out of raw, auditory and visual inputs. We said that working memory has to process the raw information. These processing steps are, select, align, organize, and integrate. Going through all of these steps takes up energy. This energy is called cognitive load.

The cognitive load during a teaching or learning session has to match up with your learner's cognitive capacity for learning, to be successful. And as with other forms of energy, the energy of working memory can also be wasted. By whom you ask? Well, hurts to admit, but the truth is most often by teachers who don't try to understand how learning works.

Broadly speaking, learning consists of three processes that consume energy that cause cognitive load. There's extraneous processing, essential processing, and generative processing. Let's have a look at each of them. Extraneous processing refers to cognitive processing that does not support the instructional goal. It's usually caused by poor instructional design.

This happens, for example, when too much information is presented on the screen, and learners have to select what to pay attention to. Or, when there's an image accompanied by written text, which doesn't align with what the speaker says. You need to get rid of any extraneous processing if you want to be a successful teacher.

Then there's essential processing, which refers to the cognitive work that's necessary in order to convert relevant information into verbal and pictorial mental models. Essential processing gets you from here to here. And finally, there's generative processing, which refers to the work that's necessary to make sense of the mental model you have just acquired.

Think of your mental model as a new book that you've just read. Generative processing is like trying to figure out where the book should go on your bookshelf. Should this new book on heart rhythm problems go into the cardiology section, the physiology section, or should it go into the section with interesting patient cases? Or, could it go into all of them?

You're trying to figure out how this new book relates to other books in your mental library. Generative processing results in the construction of a so-called integrated mental model. How smart someone is, to a large extent determines how much essential processing they'll need to do in order to understand a concept or a mental model.

You could say they have more essential processing power. How driven and motivated they are determines to what extent they can turn new mental models into integrated models. So, generative processing has everything to do with the learners motivation. Now that you understand that cognitive load is determined by three types of energy consuming processes, extraneous processing, essentiall processing, and generative processing, it's your job as a teacher to help your learners consume as little processing power as possible to understand your message.