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Helping With Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 3: Limiting New Technologies to Reduce Extrinsic Cognitive Load

A librarian colleague used to say to me, "Technology is great until it's not." This couldn't be more true in the classroom.  As many of us prepare for a fall entirely or partially online, there's a rush to familiarize ourselves with lots of new educational technology to teach our classes. There's this sense that if you're not using the best and newest ed tech in your class, you're doing something wrong.

Fortunately, the science doesn't back this up.  Using too many different types of technology can be a contributing factor to cognitive overload in students. Cognitive load is a term cognitive psychologists use to describe the mental challenge that the limitations of working memory puts on a student's learning.[1] Basically, working memory is extremely limited in both time and duration. Humans can only hold on to between four and nine "chunks" of information at any given time,[2] and can only hold on to new information in their working memory for about thirty seconds if not rehearsed.[3] Learning complex, new information exhausts students' finite working memory on its own--without adding to the mix a long list of new technologies that students haven't used before.

Cognitive theorists divide cognitive load into two primary types. The first is intrinsic cognitive load, which refers to the mental challenge inherent to the material students are learning.[4]  For law students, this would be the legal concepts and skills in which they are submersing themselves. The second type of cognitive load is extraneous cognitive load, which occurs when information unnecessary to the classes' primary learning objectives is introduced. This unrelated or unnecessary information actually interferes with student learning.[5]  For law students, this is anything that requires students' attention and effort without adding to their knowledge base--from poorly designed PowerPoint slides with too much text and technology that is hard to navigate.  As instructors, our goal should be to decrease extrinsic load, so students can use their working memory to try to retain the important concepts from the class.

By no means does this mean we should avoid using educational technology in our online classes; they are an excellent way to engage and motivate our students.  We should just limit the number that we are using and give clear instructions on how to use those tools at the start of our semester so students don't disengage due to frustration from using too many different, new-to-them technologies.  Another best practice is to provide instructional documents or videos explaining how and why you're going to use these tools should be part of the first day homework assignment.  Keep these videos short and to the point.  If you want your students to actually read or watch these materials and ensure that all students know how to use them properly, it's also a best practice to include a short quiz about the assignment.

In considering which technology tools to use, start from your learning objectives. Which technologies can help you meet your course learning objectives?  Brainstorm different ways you can use one or two technologies to do different types of active learning activities in your class.  Then test those technologies so you're as familiar with them as possible and to troubleshoot any issues that your students might later experience.  Some barriers to be aware of that can hinder learning include "a difficult log-in process, out-of-pocket expenses, nonfunctionality with keyboard use only, or levels of complexity that require learners to use all their cognitive resources to navigate the tech."[6]

By limiting the number of technologies you use, you will be able to help students stay engaged and motivated without overloading their working memories.  We want to use technology that enhances, rather than inhibits, learning.



To see other parts of this series:
Part I: Considering Serial Position Effect
Part II: Prioritizing Transparency
Part IV: Building an Online Teaching Presence



[1] Fred Pass et al., Cognitive Load Theory: Instructional Implications of the Interaction Between Information Structures and Cognitive Architecture, 32 Instructional Sci. 1, 2 (2004).

[2] Cognitive Learning Theory--Making Learning More Effective, MindTools, https://mindtools.com/pages/article/cognitive-load-theory.htm.

[3]  Richard E. Clark et al., Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction, Am. Educator (Spring 2012), at 8.

[4]  Id. at 9.

[5]  Terri L. Enns & Monte Smith, Taking a (Cognitive) Load Off: Creating Space to Allow First-Year Legal Writing Students to Focus on Analytical and Writing Processes, 20 J. Legal Writing Inst. 109, 110 (2015).

[6]  Flower Darby & James M. Lang, Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes 68 (2019).

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