No (Cognitive) Load Zone

March 21, 2019
Teaching & LearningSarah Wegwerth

Ideally, our students would come to lecture having read the assigned textbook readings and prepared for an in depth discussion. In that perfect world, lecture time would be spent guiding students through the most challenging concepts.  In reality though, unless there is accountability tied to the pre-class assignment, very few students actually come prepared.

Knowing your students have not come prepared, is it possible to briefly cover the basics then dive right in to the more challenging items? Based on cognitive load theory, the answer is no. To learn, students need to move information from the working memory (which is limited in the amount of information it can hold) to the long-term memory. For this to happen new information needs to be connected to a framework which is based on their prior knowledge. Unfortunately, during lecture students who are unprepared will exhaust their working memory learning the terminology and concepts leaving them unable to make deeper connections.

Since you’ve become an expert, have you ever paused to think how many terms there are in organic chemistry and how intuitively we use them? No wonder students get overwhelmed in lecture!

A great article from 2012 by Michael Seery and Roisin Donnelly proposes a relatively simple solution (reference). From their research on cognitive load theory, they designed online, pre-lecture modules to cover the terminology. The modules consisted of a visual and complementary audio with emphasis placed on presenting just the key information. Activities were followed by an easy short quiz aimed at instilling confidence in the students and reinforcing information.

To measure the effectiveness of the technique, the researchers compared the average exam scores of students who had prior knowledge (measured using information collected from the Admissions Office) to those who had no prior knowledge. Previously, the gap between the two groups had been 19%, (63% vs. 44% average score). With the implementation of pre-lecture resources this gap dropped to 6%!, (61% vs 56% average score). These results underscore the importance of students coming to lecture with a basic understanding of the concepts to be covered.

How does this research affect Alchemie’s Active Learning Initiative? While we will leave it up to you to design content  implementation strategies, pre-lecture assignments are a great way to get students ready for class. Additionally, as the authors noted in their paper, students will be able to participate and engage in a much greater discussion on the key topics of the day, an essential skill for making active learning work! We will recommend simple puzzles to engage students to build their confidence before lecture, and you can set a deadline for these pre-lecture assignment for before class starts with the Epiphany dashboard.

We look forward to discussing and creating pre-lecture resources with you!

Seery, M. K., Donnelly, R. The implementation of pre-lecture resources to reduce in-class cognitive load: A case study for higher education chemistry, British Journal of Educational Technology, 2012, 43, 667-677.


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