Cognitive Load and Active Learning

jigsaw puzzle pieces

A couple of days ago on Twitter, the ever-lasting debate between lecture and active learning reignited due to some talks at an Educational Research Conference held in Dublin. These talks stated direct guidance (which includes lecture) was superior in terms of student learning due its reduction of students’ cognitive load. The main citation used for this argument was an article by Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark published in 2006. So, let’s dive into what this article says.

Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark argue that active learning techniques, including discovery learning, experiential learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and several others, in general provide minimal guidance to novice learners (i.e. students). Therefore, active learning techniques will be ineffective in terms of learning based on what we know about human cognitive architecture. Direct guidance techniques, such as lecture, worked examples, and process worksheets prove far more effective in terms of novice learning because they decrease the students’ cognitive load. According to Kirschner et al. (2006), Sweller and others first defined cognitive load theory as a heavy load in students’ working memory- where conscious processing occurs- that is detrimental to their learning. Cognitive load is caused by the “free exploration of a highly complex environment” (Kirschner et al. 2006, p. 80). Cognitive load decreases when an instructor offers direct guidance and allows students to build the frameworks (schemas) needed to learn, which in cognitive science is when working memory is processed into long-term memory.

Overall, Kirschner et al. (2006) maintain that when active learning techniques treat novice learners as if they are experts, learning may, in fact, decrease. More direct guidance and more scaffolding of difficult tasks (such as problem-solving) help students build the long-term knowledge recall they need in order to use and apply what they are presently learning in their future.

Now, there are several problems with the Kirschner et al. article, many of which have been discussed in future articles, including the premise made in the article that content knowledge is key and that learning “how to become a _______ (i.e. chemist, mathematician, philosopher, etc.)” is not important. One of the most specific rebuttals was published about a year later in the same journal. Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn (2007) pose a formal rebuttal to Kirschner et al. (2006), arguing that PBL (problem-based learning) and IL (inquiry learning) are not minimally guided instruction. PBL and IL (which are treated fairly synonymously in the article) are, in fact, highly scaffolded pedagogical methodologies that help students build more complex learning through distributed practice and therefore fall under those techniques Kirschner et. al label as “direct guidance”. Therefore, these instructional practices also reduce students’ cognitive load and result in greater learning. The authors also present evidence that PBL and IL help disadvantaged students more than Kirschner et al.’s claims that these techniques disproportionally hurt disadvantaged students. I personally enjoyed Hmelo-Silver et al.’s series of claims at the end of the article which stated that Kirschner et al.’s understanding of what students need to be learning was essentially flawed. Kirschner et al. want students to understand content knowledge- facts, laws, principles and theories- whereas Hmelo-Silver et al. argue that students also must understand the nature of and the practices involved in scientific research (i.e. scientific literacy). Hmelo-Silver et al. argue that understanding these processes will help motivate students to learn more effectively and more deeply (which, in turn, reduces cognitive load and results in processing working memories into long-term memory).

As we’ve learned more about the brain, our understanding has radically shifted of what teaching techniques result in learning. Memory comes in many different forms- procedural, which is unconscious and implicit and declarative, which is conscious, explicit, and can be separated into episodic and semantic- and we can modify our teaching pedagogy to maximize the number of different kinds of memory formed. Active learning techniques often stimulate neurons by piquing student interest, tying concepts to other topics or real life, and relieving student stress by evaluating student learning through low stakes formative assessments. Our pedagogical goal might be to stimulate as many kinds of memory as we can in order to maximize the placement of student learning in long-term memory.

Owens and Tanner (2017) evaluated several evidence-based teaching practices, including think-pair-share, concept mapping, frequent homework, problem-based learning, and using culturally diverse examples. They show how specific neuroscientific principles may correspond to psychological or educational findings, which, in turn, may be harnessed by a single or a series of teaching technique(s) [hence the reason we call these teaching techniques evidence-based teaching practices]. Deliberate practice, in this case through frequent and active homework, helps build expertise in a domain by building synaptic plasticity, a process in which “changes in the strength and number of the connections between existing neurons” (Owens and Tanner, 2017, p. 3) result in learning. Think-pair-share also increases synaptic plasticity by engaging students’ brains in ways that recall semantic information but also may include the formation of skills and habits, depending on the questions posed. Concept maps rationally encode knowledge, which allows memories to build as synaptic networks, which helps students turn working memory into long-term memory. Problem-based learning encourages students in terms of motivation and attention, which in turn increases learning by increasing synaptic plasticity. Using culturally diverse examples in one’s pedagogy decreases stress by helping to alleviate or eliminate stereotype threat, which is when people are part of a group that is negatively stereotyped. Stereotype threat undermines learning and performance.

Clearly, from these examples and many more, active learning techniques can be used to increase encoding and consolidation for long-term memory formation. Using active learning techniques with novice learners may require more scaffolding or direct guidance so that our students can actually learn without becoming overly frustrated. The most important aspect of our teaching may very well be knowing our students well enough to be able to choose a teaching technique that is effective for their learning.

Article References

Hmelo-Silver, C., Duncan, R. G., & Chinn, C. A. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99-107.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Owens, M. T., & Tanner, K. D. (2017). Teaching as brain changing: Exploring connections between neuroscience and innovative teaching. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(2), 1-9.

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Comments 2

Eric Nelson | Thu, 11/07/2019 - 17:10


May I suggest three additional references on these issues?

1.  The Kirshner et al. vs. Hmelo-Silver et al. papers you cite led to a book in which a dozen cognitive experts debate the learning issues involved.  See:

Tobias and Duffy (editors.): Constructivist Instruction:  Success or Failure?  Routledge, New York (2009).

In one chapter arguing for the use of “constructivist” approaches when solving problems that do NOT have clear right answers, cognitive scientists Rand Spiro and Michael DeSchryver write that direct instruction IS effective IF teaching students to solve problems that are “well-structured” (have clear right answers) such as nearly all the problems at the end of the chapter in general chemistry texts.  They note:

 “In well-structured domains, we agree that concepts can be directly instructed, fully-explained, and simply supported – and more often than not they should be.  Yes, the data favor direct instructional guidance, but most of this data is from well-structured domains like physics and mathematics…..  “

Would that apply to chemistry, too?

2.  In 2012, Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark issued a revised version of their 2006 paper that is highly readable -- at:

In this updated paper, they write that active learning, at the proper time, can indeed be useful:

“Independent problems and projects can be effective – not as vehicles for making discoveries, but as a means of practicing recently learned content and skills.”

3.  These issues are explored in the 2015 paper in the journal Foundations of Chemistry titled

“Do I Need to Memorize That?” or Cognitive Science for Chemists (2015).  posted at www.ChemReview.Net/CogSciForChemists.pdf .

(Disclosure:  I was a co-author).   Thanks for this informative post!