Reduce, reuse, recycle: PowerPoint, Word and cognitive load

What is Cognitive Load Theory and how does it apply to our resources?

This article from Impact presents two main ways in which Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) can be applied to the classroom: intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load. The design of our information and resources is absolutely key to tackling cognitive load so let’s look at how we can do that.

Intrinsic cognitive load can be reduced by breaking down the subject content, sequencing the delivery so that sub-tasks are taught individually before being explained together as a whole. The idea is to not overwhelm a student too early on in the introduction of new work.

Just as our verbal instructions and explanations must be clear and concise so must our visual instructions and explanations. Sequence and content overload are both things which can be overcome with good graphic design.

Extraneous cognitive load can be reduced by the way in which instructions are presented. We make sense of new material by referencing schema or mental models of pre-existing knowledge. Lack of clarity in instruction puts too high a load on the working memory, and so too much time is spent problem-solving the instructions as opposed to new schema formation. For example, lessons that use PowerPoint with excessive writing and the teacher talking at the same time, can inadvertently generate excessive cognitive load and lead to working memory failures.

Focusing our visual explanations and instructions on complementing rather than duplicating our verbal utterances is key to reducing this type of cognitive load. Furthermore we can think about where we are putting information and where students can access it to form schema and commit information to memory. Speech is very immediate but a PowerPoint slide might stay up for a few minutes whilst a knowledge organiser is a visual resource students can access whenever they need to.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

I think there are three main principles to consider when you are assessing the effectiveness of your information design whether it’s presentations, worksheets, knowledge organisers or even students own notes.

1. Reduce

I certainly had a tendency in the past to use a blank PowerPoint slide as a brain dump where I would write down what I would later say in the lesson itself. By thinking of our information resources as complementary to teacher talk rather than duplicating it we can hugely cut down on the amount of text, and even the visuals needed on our slides. Do not read off slides and if you are going to have students make notes from slides do not have them on display as you are talking.

Similarly we need to reduce the amount of noise on the page. Whether that’s a busy PowerPoint theme, a selection of different fonts or colours or just a ‘jazzy’ worksheet. It has to go. Simplicity is absolutely key when you are trying to transmit knowledge in a visual form to children. Start with what is essential for the students to have in front of them then stop.

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An example KS4 Knowledge Organiser: black and white, grid format, one font, familiar icons


2. Reuse

As you plan a scheme of work you would naturally think of what kind of vocabulary you would introduce and then use throughout: if I am teaching the Religion and Life module I am going to want to introduce the idea of sanctity of life early on and keep referencing it. The same can be said of our visual language: if I introduce an icon of a cradle to symbolise the incarnation of Christ then I need to be reusing that exact same icon in all future PowerPoints, knowledge organisers, quizzes and even notes. This both increases cognition through dual coding theory by using both visual and verbal channels but also increases recall as students can recognise the symbols even if the exact vocabulary escapes their immediate grasp.

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Icons to represent key points in Jesus’ life I use again-and-again along with the key vocabulary

3. Recycle

Give yourself a visual style and stick to it. Not only does this reduce cognitive load on students as they don’t have to deal with a new font or layout or colour scheme each lesson but it also saves you work as you can easily adapt one lesson’s resources to suit the next. I use the same reading and note-taking template a lot and because I use it so consistently I can now present it to students without spending a long time explaining the task. Similarly reusing quiz slides, re-cap slides or start-of-lesson slides acts as a visual bit of routine building. Students know when they come in and see my start-of-lesson slide with title, date, definition and re-cap quiz that they have to do those things in that order whilst I get settled doing the register.

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My Year 7 start-of-lesson slide

Give these three principles some thought as you go to lay out your next worksheet or re-jig your PowerPoint slides and you can take some quite easy steps to reduce cognitive load on your students and even workload for yourself.


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