More on Designing for Cognitive Load

A follow-up to my last post about cognitive load:

I remember a few conversations over the years — once during a job interview — on whether it’s better to give students a concept first and specific examples second, or to provide examples first and then the concept. Bokan and Goodboy (2020)* studied this question with an interesting experiment.

Focus on the triangles’ colors for now; I’ll explain how it relates to something called democratic peace theory later.

They randomly assigned 275 students to one of two conditions in which the order of information in a narrative instructional text moved either from (a) concrete examples to abstract definitions or from (b) abstract definitions to concrete examples. Students reported their perceived cognitive burden during the experiment. Bokan’s and Goodboy’s underlying hypothesis was that poorly designed instructional materials increase students’ extraneous cognitive burden, leading to working memory overload and decreased learning.

They found that placing concrete examples after abstract definitions in an assigned text resulted in higher scores on tests of information recall, retention, and application, even when controlling for students’ prior familiarity with the subject and grade point average. Students “scored almost a whole letter grade lower for every point they reported facing a higher working memory overload.” The authors concluded that the order in which information is presented matters for students reading instructional materials, perhaps because people have a “natural tendency to look for organizing principles before they move on to study more detailed information.” When specific examples are presented before the larger concepts to which they pertain, people are forced to keep detailed information in their minds while simultaneously attempting to categorize it.

*San Bolkan & Alan K. Goodboy (2020) Instruction, example order, and student
learning: reducing extraneous cognitive load by providing structure for elaborated examples,
Communication Education, 69:3, 300-316, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2019.1701196.

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