How do we learn?

The human brain is a highly complex and adaptive system. Knowledge of our cognitive architecture can help us better understand how we learn, and how we should teach. Working Memory (WM) is an especially relevant part, as a better understanding of it can improve education. Working Memory is the system where most new information is initially processed, as well as the content of our thoughts or focus. The information elements hold by working memory are typically called ‘representations’. 

Working memory

Working memory is limited in two important ways: it can only hold information for a few seconds, and it can only hold a limited amount of information concurrently. Both are factors which limit the complexity of our thoughts (Halford, Cowan, & Andrews, 2007; Oberauer, 2009). Individual differences in WM efficacy is a major determinant of cognitive development of children, in old age, as well as overall intellectual abilities throughout life (Bayliss, Jarrold, Gunn, & Baddeley, 2003; Park et al., 2002; Salthouse, 1994; Conway, Kane, & Engle, 2003; Jarrold  &  Towse,  2006). 

What causes our WM to be limited, is that concurrent representations can cause mutual inference; the more these representations are similar, the more they interfere and effectively limit the WM (Oberauer, Farrell, Jarrold, & Lewandowsky, 2016).

The limited nature of our working memory has important consequences for education. Cognitive Load Theory is primarily focused on understanding how we can make our instructional efforts more consistent with human cognitive architecture (see Sweller, 1988, 1994, 1999; Sweller, van Merienboer, & Paas, 1998). 

Due to the limited nature of WM, it is vital that students are not overloaded with more information than they can process, as they won’t be able to learn from it. Overloading can happen in many ways, depending on the individual, the context, and the materials. While generalizations are difficult, there are various generic ways in which students can be overloaded, as well as ways to prevent this:

Split attention effects (e.g.  Mayer, & Moreno, 1988)

Causes: When multiple source of information (e.g. a picture and a legend) are presented with a substantial physical or temporal distances. More generally, a detrimental split-attention can occur when multiple sources of information compete for attention but cannot (or only with great effort) be attended to simultaneously.

Prevent by: Integrating related sources of information (e.g. don’t use a legend but put the labels inside a picture) and limiting the amount of concurrently presented competing information streams. In addition, signals and cues (either verbal or visual) can prevent overload by helping students with focusing their attention on the most relevant information (Mautone, & Mayer, 2001).

Modality effects (e.g. Ginns,2005)

Causes: When multiple sources of information are all presented in the same modality (e.g. exclusively visual or aural information). Representations which are more similar, interfere more with each other; multiple sources of visual information will cause more interference than visual and auditory representations.

Prevent by: Using more than one modality to present information (e.g. verbally explain visual content). 

Redundancy effects (e.g. Chandler & Sweller, 1991)

Causes: When the same information is unnecessarily presented in multiple ways, for example when a presenter is reading out loud the text shown in a powerpoint presentation. Likewise, giving detailed explanations about concepts which are already understood by students can also cause a detrimental redundancy effect. Note that it can differ per student and material type if and when information is redundant, based on their prior knowledge.

Prevent by: Do not present redundant information. If a concept is clear without additional explanatory information, the addition of this extra information can actually hamper learning, due to the limited capacity of our WM. This is in contrast with the common belief that more explanations are generally better.


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