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.

Designing for Cognitive Load

Cognitive load theory is one perspective on learning that can be applied to teaching in this unusual time. The theory sees working memory — the part of the mind that temporarily stores and manipulates information — as a constraint on learning, because it can only manage a few pieces of information at once. Placing a load on working memory is like trying to push water through a pipe with a constant diameter; you can shove only so much water through the pipe at any given time at a given pressure. If the water’s pressure exceeds what the pipe is able to withstand, you get a flooded basement.

What is the square root of 1,137?

There are three types of cognitive load: intrinsic, germane, and extraneous. Intrinsic load represents the essential actions that occur when learning information that is specific to a topic or task. The load varies according to the information’s inherent level of difficulty for the learner, which makes it partially a function of prior learning: the more one has practiced using the information, the less the effort that needs to be expended the next time it’s encountered. Tying shoelaces requires our full concentration when we are in kindergarten; as adults we perform the task almost automatically and can attend equally well to other cognitive demands at the same time.

Germane cognitive load consists of the work of converting the information in working memory to permanent knowledge, or what the psychologists refer to as a schema. You can think of germane cognitive load as the physical actions of a bank employee storing your shoebox full of cash in the bank’s vault for you to retrieve when needed at some future time. Germane cognitive load is the mental effort that occurs when something is actually “learned.”

Continue reading “Designing for Cognitive Load”

And They’re Off

We are now nearly three full weeks into our fall semester. My teaching duties include two fully online synchronous undergraduate courses that contain a total of fifty-five students. I reformulated these courses for online delivery because of the pandemic; in-person instruction has been, until now, the norm for undergraduate education at my university. Here are a few early-semester observations:

Given the faces that appear on my screen and Zoom usage reports, class sessions have been well-attended. I do see a few students connecting from their beds; obviously they are not fully awake. One student is connecting from her workplace, while on the job. But while some students might be less engaged than they are in a physical classroom, at minimum they are “present.” I regularly teach early in the morning, and for face-to-face classes, typically 5-10% of my students are absent on any given day.

I’m a believer in assessing early and often. I provide all assignments and deadlines to students at the start of the semester — via the syllabus and the LMS. Both of my courses have had five assignments due so far. Five out of the fifty-five students chose not to submit at least one assignment by its deadline. Four students did not submit two assignments. Three did not submit three, and one student chose not to complete any of the five. This matches what happens when I teach face-to-face. My courses often end up with a bimodal grade distribution; while it’s really hard for students to achieve D and F grades, a few always manage to succeed, and they are invariably the ones who do poorly at the beginning of the semester. Probably this pattern is consistent regardless of instructional delivery method.

Learned helplessness seems to have increased compared to past semesters, but only slightly, so I don’t know whether this is associated with online instruction. I’m getting the usual excuses: I can’t submit an assignment to the LMS. I can’t upload a photo to an asynchronous online discussion. I didn’t know the class was on Zoom rather than Webex even though you sent three emails with instructions before the semester started. As I state in my syllabi, these are not my problems. Figure it out.

In sum, my experience so far this semester hasn’t been that different than previous semesters. Yes, there have been a few technical glitches on my end, and there are some new complexities that I’m still learning how to manage. But at least from my perspective (which might be different from that of my students), things are going ok.

We would like to hear what you’re encountering this semester, especially if you are in a “hy-flex” environment simultaneously teaching in-person and remotely-connected students. How is it going? Send us a potential guest post at

Caveat Emptor

An open letter to current and potential future graduate students:

The bottom has now completely fallen out of the academic labor market in the USA. Over the last several years, I’ve written about the deteriorating financial situation of many U.S. colleges and universities. At the micro scale, two for four institutions profiled in that post have closed. At the macro scale, there is this 2013 overview of pending structural change in higher education by a former provost. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has simply accelerated the process.

I have also discussed what this means for people planning on a career in academia. The outlook has gone from very bad to worse. The University of Pennsylvania has reacted responsibly by suspending admission to its graduate programs in arts and sciences. More universities should do the same. But they probably won’t, because graduate tuition and labor are part of the university business model. My advice? Don’t enter a graduate program with expectations of becoming a professor unless you are granted full funding for the length of the program.

What should current graduate students do? Become proficient in skills that have been and will continue to be in demand outside of academia — statistics, data visualization, coding, and writing for policymakers and the public rather than the dozen people who might read your journal article. Also, a master’s degree in instructional design is a very useful credential. Note that political science graduate programs often don’t provide students with formal, effective training in any of these skills. That’s because they are preparing people for a career that, statistically-speaking, no longer exists.

Keeping Students on Track

Regardless of how well our autumn checklists prepared us for autumn teaching, there is a good chance the unexpected will introduce the need for change. Or, to paraphrase a philosopher, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. A few tips on how to minimize the pain:

Build an asynchronous component into a synchronous course. If your campus is evacuated, technology fails, or you have to shelter in place, there is at least one part of the course that continues to operate. You can use it as a foundation upon which to construct substitutes for the other parts that are no longer working.

Create routine using repeated cycles of the same activities. For example, I have one undergraduate course meeting twice per week. On Tuesdays, class begins with students discussing an assignment in small groups. A randomly chosen group then reports its findings to the whole class. Then I give a brief lecture. On Thursdays, students take a quiz, work on team projects, and meet with me individually. That’s the pattern for almost the entire semester.

Narrow each class session to teaching a single big idea, preferably one directly related to a course learning outcome. Get rid of the peripheral “it would be nice if students also knew about . . .” content, because it confuses students — they aren’t as good as you are at identifying what they should focus on. If the unexpected disrupts class, the clarity of the lesson will make it easier for you to quickly develop an alternative method of delivery.

Regularly remind students what is headed their way. I’m now sending out “agenda for the coming week” announcements. My intent is simply to reinforce the messages in the syllabus and in the schedule of assignments in the LMS/VLE. Again, if there is an unplanned interruption in any particular week, I can conveniently refer back to that week’s agenda to inform students what is changing and how.

Creating Community V: Final Touches

Some final attempts to build community into my courses before they start this week:

I scheduled a few Zoom meetings at different times so students could test their access and ask me questions. I had created a poll with the following questions as a way for them to assess their readiness (possible answers were “yes,” “no,” and “unsure”):

  1. I will have reliable and convenient internet access when the semester begins.
  2. I feel comfortable learning how to use Zoom.
  3. I am looking forward to the fall semester.
  4. I am worried about the possible effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on me or my family members.
  5. I am worried that non-academic demands on my time, such as employment or care for family members, might interfere with my studies.
Continue reading “Creating Community V: Final Touches”

Creating Community IV: Access and Culture

Taking a step back from collaborative exercises and assignments, and in line with Simon’s recent post:

If students are to develop a sense of community in a course, they have to know how to access it and they need to be aware of its cultural norms. For us, both are obvious, because we designed the course. For students, neither might be immediately apparent. Since I’m teaching fully online, partially synchronous undergraduate courses for the first time this fall, I decided to create a pre-semester checklist to inform students about basic technological requirements and behavioral expectations. A template for you to use to create your own checklist is below. A specific example of what I’ll be sending students is here. Feel free to use both. As usual, the views expressed herein are my own and not those of my university; your needs may differ.

Continue reading “Creating Community IV: Access and Culture”

Creating Community III: Memo Exercise

More on creating community in an online course (previous posts are here and here): a collaborative writing exercise.

For several years, I’ve used memos as an authentic writing assignment. Or tried to. Often the results haven’t met my expectations. I have had students write multiple complete memos in a course, all in the same format, assuming that they will apply my feedback from the previous memo to the next one. Instead, students repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

For the upcoming semester, I decided to turn memo writing into a group activity, on the chance that collaborating with peers might produce better results. As in previous semesters, I will provide source material and the prompt. In a graded individual assignment, each student will write only specific portions of a memo, described below in the sample instructions and rubric. Students will be able to use a new memo template and guidelines that will be available on Canvas.

Continue reading “Creating Community III: Memo Exercise”

Creating Community II: Class Notes

As promised in my last post on the subject, here is another way to create community in your online or hybrid course: collaborative note-taking.

There is some empirical evidence that collaborative note-taking benefits student learning, but rather than repeat the details, I’ll refer you to this 2015 study by Harold Orndorff. [Update: Brielle Harbin, assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy shared her work — here and here — with me after reading today’s post.] Collaborative notes might also help resolve my perennial problem of students not taking notes during face-to-face classes. So, having decided that this change might be worth making, here is a synopsis of my thought process so far:

Step 1: Choose a platform

While many online collaboration platforms exist — Padlet, Slack, Microsoft Teams, to name a few — I wanted a tool that both I and my students are already familiar with, so I chose Google Docs.

Continue reading “Creating Community II: Class Notes”

Video Tutorial: Taking Simulations Online

Today we have a guest post, actually a guest video, from Sarah Federman, assistant professor in negotiations and conflict management for the College of Public Affairs, University of Baltimore. She can be contacted at sfederman [at] ubalt [dot] edu. 

Sarah has created this brief video tutorial on taking simulations online, especially those that involve negotiation and conflict. The video has much food for thought. For example, one should not necessarily assume that the online environment lessens the simulation experience for students. Online allows interaction between students who attend different universities and can also facilitate the ability of students to design their own simulations — resulting in less work for the instructor.