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Cognitive Load

The idea of "cognitive load" is a good example where the hard science of neuroscience and the social science of education come together to form an important and practical learning theory.

In 1968, scientists Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin published "Human memory: A Proposed System and its Control Processes," in which they proposed a model of human information processing. Twenty years later, in 1988, John Sweller took this model and offered up Cognitive Load Theory.

Cognitive Load theory argues that human working memory has a limited capacity, and therefore educational opportunities should be designed in such a way that unnecessary information is removed, and all activities and information in a course should directly relate to learning.

Cognitive Load theory is very influential in the 21st century, and if you stop to consider it, you are likely to see its influence in educational technologies such as the Learning Management System (LMS) that we use at Wichita State. Blackboard's new "Ultra" course format is designed to remove as much extraneous information as possible. For example, there are limited color and font options in this environment, and the class layout available to your professors is very limited so that most classes in the Ultra format look similar from one course to the next. These efforts to streamline and simplify the environment are attempts to eliminate unnecessary strain on students' cognitive load.

This short article from MindTools provides a little more information about cognitive load and includes a visual representation of Atkinson and Shiffrin's original model of information processing, and the original article is available through Wichita State Libraries using the link above.