Cognitive Load: When Your Brain Is Full

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We have all had that one experience, I'm sure. Sitting in a meeting or classroom, listening to a presentation or watching a demo, and the brain starts to wander. It can happen to different people at different times and have different initial factors, but the reason is the same: cognitive load has been reached.

The Effects of HIgh Cognitive Load
So what is Cognitive Load? Basically, it's the amount of working memory the brain uses to perform tasks. The more tasks you perform, the more cognitive load you heap on your brain.

Of course, there are levels of brain activity that utilize your working memory, and it differs based on the need for understanding. The less you need to assimilate within a given time, the less cognitive load you need to use. It seems like a simple concept, doesn't it? Focus on what you are doing, and eventually you will get there.

Unfortunately, in the world of Professional Training, this is a luxury you can't often afford. People are required to assimilate a lot of information in a very short amount of time. Because their cognitive load is really high, they are less likely to understand the topics that are being discussed. Consequently the learning experience is diminished or negative, leaving the learner confused and even a little scared.

An excellent example I saw was a student that had taken my Excel 2003 Level 1 course. Normally, this would be a very simple class to take, and I like the design because it takes Cognitive Load into consideration for the majority of students. This student, however, was new to Windows platform entirely. So not only was the student trying to understand the Excel interface, but also the Windows interface. The student locked up, and took my entire lunch time to start to feel more comfortable.

Fighting High Cognitive Load
So, what is a course designer to do? You have a high cognitive load requirement to finish the course material in as little time as possible. How can you be sure that your students are maximizing their understanding?

The first thing I would recommend is checking for those peak times when Cognitive Load becomes an issue. The number one cuplrit: Lunch. After lunch, the learner's blood rushes to their stomach to digest their food. As a consequence, the learner's brain has less blood to process information. I call this the Lunchtime Lull, which is best fought by having a less-taxing assignment or fun game that reinforces your principles for the students at a high level, letting their minds rest a bit.

Another problem is all lecture and no practice. While some learners are excellent at auditory learning, most need to apply the lecture at least once to cement the concept in their brain. The process of going through exercises fires additional synapses in the brain, thereby increasing the entries and imprints of the concept within the brain. Of course, the other result is a break between lectures and concepts. Once one principle has been assimilated and applied, the brain feels comfortable enough to move on to the next subject.

The last problem for Cognitive Load that I will point out is overwhelming media. In the world today we have several media outlets that allow access to just about every form of media, and it's not uncommon to see people try to deal with more than one media outlet at a time. How many students do you know do their homework while the TV is on? How about the radio, with non-instrumental music playing?

The brain isn't able to multi-task very well, and will latch on only one function at a time at a high level (processing information). All other functions at that point are placed within the low level functionality, running basically the same level as riding a bike or balancing. As a result, only one media type can be utilized to "learn". Any other media is either a distraction, or is being processed at a low level and not assimilated within the memory.

"But." I hear you say, "I have read a book and watched TV/listened to my favorite lyrics at the same time, and I get by just fine!" Ask yourself how many times you were thinking of the story within the show on TV or listening to the lyrics when you should have been reading. Happen very often? Probably. Another basic concept of the brain is that, just like most forces in nature, it will take the road of least resistance unless forced otherwise. That means that your "distractions" are just your brain telling you it's easier to process the distraction than the material in front of you.

How do you fight this? Well, the first and perhaps most difficult for the learner is to remove the distraction. Have the learners turn off their cell phones while in class, avoid texting someone when they should be working on an assignment, and not sit there and work on their My Space/Facebook page when in a lecture (it's a pet peeve of mine!). If they focus on their work and what they are learning with no distractions (including audio), their cognitive load is decreased.

Something else you can do is just increase your concentration. This is physically more difficult, because it requires a lower Cognitive Load on the material. Why? Because the student needs to increase their cognitive load to increase their concentration. Concentration requires a conscious commitment by the learner to block out any and all distractions. The fewer actual distractions in the room, the more likely it is a learner will be able to learn.

How Does This Affect Me?
We all assimilate information every day, whether it's conscious learning or basic observation. That means we all need to watch our Cognitive Load. Ever wonder why people vegetate in front of a TV? TV shows and commercials are geared to take most if not all of your cognitive load to keep your attention. That way you are less likely to change the channel, and more likely to increase their ratings and ad revenues.

So look at your own life, and see where your Cognitive Load is peaking. Is there a way to reduce it, so that you can maximize your learning and observation? You may be surprised how much more productive you will become if you don't try to multi-task quite so much.