Overcoming Cognitive Load

Geek moment here.

One of the theories that explains how we retain sensory input is the Cognitive Load theory. Basically, we humans are capable of accepting unlimited amounts of incoming stimuli, but within 15 seconds, our brains have to decipher and encode some of that information into long-term memory or else it is lost forever. Think about trying to remember ever piece of information you take in when attending a three ring circus, and you'll quickly realize that yes, we are limited in what we are capable of retaining.

Cognitive Load theory further explains that if we have to work harder to make sense of incoming stimuli, the harder it will be to retain the information. For this one, think about how much effort you put into hearing a friend whisper something to you in a crowded restaurant. It's much harder to do than if you're in a quiet library, isn't it?

Well, another obstacle to encoding is trying to interpret what someone is saying when they have an accent. My first encounter with my major professor was as a 'client' in an online class and she was hard to understand, because she speaks very softly and has an accent.

Now, comprehension is easy-I not only know her nuances of speech, my brain has trained itself in how to process and encode what she says. It's actually really cool to stop and think about it, a living example of the psychological and learning theories I've studied the past few years.

Still, this course I TA has an online section. Last spring, one of my classmates was taking the class from Europe (she'd started the program when she lived in Florida, then her husband got an amazing job offer and they moved.) She'd call into the online conferencing and most of the class wasn't logged in, so she lost the engagement with some. My professor also is notorious for walking away from the front of the classroom-where the microphone on her laptop was her connection to C, my classmate.

I came up with a solution for that one, in that C would Skype me, I'd answer on my iPad, and C was placed in the midst of our group for the group component of the class. If my professor was lecturing, she carried my iPad with her and C didn't miss out on anything. We also used the conferencing client, so if she didn't hear something the professor said, she could ask, and those of us in class on the client would let her know.

It is a great tool for one person, but when you have more than one, it gets expensive.

One of the things I realized the second week of class is that I needed to monitor the conferencing for the five distance learning students. Professor still walks away from the keyboard, speaks softly and has that accent-so it's up to me to make sure they're getting what they need from the class.

Last week, we had three groups brainstorming their semester long project and thankfully, they were placed into three 'rooms' in the conferencing client, because there is no way I can monitor three different discussions at once. Earlier in the class, I'd politely waited for a break to interrupt the professor to let her know the online students couldn't hear her (again). She half laughed and told me to stop being nice-just interrupt.

While the groups were working and she and I had a chance to talk, I broached the subject of cognitive load and her lecturing style. Standing next to the laptop really isn't a good way to lecture, but walking away isn't good for the distance students. So, I presented three options for her: having her log into the conferencing client from my iPad and she'd carry it around like last semester, we'd track down a wireless mike for her from the education technology team, or she could use a bluetooth and wander the way she prefers to do.

I think that surprised her that I saw our dilemma and had answers.

Today, we had our weekly TA meeting and I'd brought a brand new Bluetooth with me-one that didn't work. She looked at me with a similar expression to a kid on Christmas morning "you mean I don't have to carry anything and the online students can hear me?" Yep. She'd never used a Bluetooth before, so she didn't realize the potential for using it for online lecturing.

After I got home, I went and exchanged the broken one for a brand new one, charged it up-and promptly synced it to my MacBook and was able to use it as an input device. We already have plans to get together prior to class tomorrow to synch up the Bluetooth to her MacBook.

My hope is that it reduces cognitive load for the distance students, so that they can absorb as much of the lecture as the in-class students.

Score one for creative solutions and another for technology improving education...

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