Notes from EDUCAUSE 2020 Working Smarter: Examining Content, Assessment, and Cognitive Load

With the paradigm shift from traditional teaching to Emergency Remote Teaching, one of the significant challenges has been student success across all formats, especially when most students had not planned to learn in a primarily online environment (and staff had not planned to teach in one). Teaching staff had a pivotal role in both student success in managing this transition, and in how they designed their teaching.

This EDUCAUSE Annual Conference presentation from Dr Kristen Betts (Clinical Professor, School of Education, Drexel University) and Dr Dana Kemery (Assoc Clinical Professor, School of Nursing and Health Professions, Drexel University) explored research in mind, brain, and education science looking specifically at how students learn, and the implications for cognitive load and thus topic design.

Mind Brain and Education Science is an emerging area informed by Psychology, Neuroscience and Education as part of looking at pedagogical practices. It aligns with Universal Design for learning by considering the following principles:

  • human brains are as unique as human faces
  • each individual’s brain is differently prepared to learn different tasks
  • new learning is influenced by prior experiences
  • the brain changes constantly with experience
  • neuroplasticity exists throughout the lifespan
  • there is no new learning without some form of attention and memory

So, hybrid and online teaching must very strategic, very intentional in how content is presented and ensure multiple means of engagement, representation, action and expression. It shouldn’t simply be a matter of basic content transfer.

It is important to consider the student experience and what that looks like in terms of interactions (teacher-student, student-content and student-student). In topic design, we account for time on-campus and need to consider this when moving online as the number of hours required by a topic doesn’t change depending on format. We must consider how much time the students are spending engaged in content, with the teacher, with learning activities, with assessment and with other students in their learning across the week and total teaching period. This helps balance content and cognitive load.

When looking at cognitive load of a topic, think about curriculum overload – is there time for students to engage with content to study, to practice, to research for assignments and so on? Students need time to be able to pay attention to what’s on screen, process and encode it and consolidate that knowledge with their own so they can retrieve that during assessments (and later!)

These all need to be planned into the topic design so students do not experience cognitive overload. Managing cognitive load needs:

  • Minimising extraneous load (e.g. how material is presented – students don’t need extra things on screen or in readings other than the necessary)
  • Managing intrinsic load (e.g. consider the inherent complexity of the learning material – this probably can’t be reduced but you can manage it by minimising extraneous load so students have the cognitive capacity to process and create new knowledge)
  • Maximising germane load (e.g. properly designed topics that consider how well the learning process is facilitated and use appropriate tools and techniques such as chunking content, allowing practice, interleaving, using universal design)

All of this allows all the pieces of the puzzle of learning to be put together effectively by the students.


Written by Cassandra Hood
Academic Developer – CILT

Posted in
Teaching Notes

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