Teaching new content: Solving a teaching challenge using Cognitive Load Theory principles by @Garnett_S

Using Cognitive Load Theory when introducing new concepts in the classroom

Take this scenario: The English teacher has a new Shakespearean play to teach the class. The class haven’t studied the play before so they are all complete novices. The teacher is interested in what may be the most efficient teaching approaches that could allow more pupils to learn more than they would under ‘normal’ teaching conditions. CLT can help!

One major dimension to Cognitive Load Theory is related to the need to appropriately manage the intrinsic load that pupils have to bear. In other words, if the teacher offers too much detail and asks the pupils to process too much ‘thinking’ about the play too quickly then this will overload working memory resources in pupils.

So, a look at so-called cognitive load ‘effects’ would be useful to support the teacher in making better choices about the ‘how’ their novice learners might learn this new play.

What follows are some suggestions drawn from CLT that could support the teacher when delivering these lessons.

Let’s take the example of the play “King Lear”

Steve’s book ‘Cognitive Load Theory – A handbook for teachers’ offers more guidance and information on implementing similar strategies. See our review and find out more by clicking here.

Idea 1: Deliver the play in ‘small steps’

(CLT explanation: The Isolated Elements effect)

This suggests that working memory resources won’t be overloaded if the content is delivered in such a way as the break up the content into manageable chunks. This may mean breaking up each Scene into a series of subsections within each Act. So, for example, this may mean breaking up Act between the part before and after Lear appears, and the sections dominated by two of his daughters


Idea 2: Utilise a disproportionately ‘visual/auditory’ approach

(CLT explanation: The ‘Modality effect)

This describes how a combination of visuals alongside the spoken word can in effect ‘cheat’ working memory limits for the novice. In other words, working memory can process more than ordinarily possible if the content is presented to the pupils in a visual way together with accompanying spoken words. So, for example, the animated Shakespeare series on “King Lear’ would be perfect. The teacher could turn the sound off, allow the video to play and the teacher would offer the appropriate verbal narration to the class.

If the teacher wasn’t able to access the animated play on video or YouTube etc then it might be possible for the teacher to create their own ‘storyboard’ of cartoon-style visuals (see below for an example of part of Act 1) to summarise the play.

‘The problem that King Lear had was that he was old and tired (1) and wanted to give his kingdom away (2) and enjoy a peaceful life in his old age (3). He decided that he was going to abdicate and give his crown away and share it amongst his daughters (4). He had three, Regan, Cordelia and Goneril (5). He wasn’t sure how he was going to share his kingdom (6) so his solution was to test their love for him (7) and this would influence how he shared his kingdom between them (8).’

Idea 3: Allow pupils to read the text first and then the teacher would read it out second

(CLT explanation: The Split Attention effect)

Idea 1 and 2 attempts to avoid ‘losing’ pupils too early in the process of learning all about King Lear. Due to the Modality effect the pupils should have some relevant details about King Lear in their heads but they are of course not ‘fluent’ as yet.

Idea 3 becomes relevant when the teacher decides it is appropriate to ask the pupils to begin to read the play. One error that CLT suggests should be avoided, is for the teacher to read the play out loud whilst asking the pupils to read it to themselves at the same time. This would fall foul of the Split Attention effect. Essentially working memory resources would be overloaded if the pupils are being asked to both listen to the teacher and also read and process the text at the same time. It’s more efficient if the teacher asks the pupils to read the text first and then the teacher could read it out loud afterwards. (There is even evidence that asking the pupils to read the text out loud to themselves is better than asking them to read it silently)


Idea 4: Keep any teacher exposition ‘short and sharp’

(CLT explanation: Transient Information effect)

In the early stages of reading and understanding the play, it is best for the teacher to keep any exposition relatively brief. Overlong teacher exposition would mean a lot of what was spoken would overload working memory and then be quickly forgotten. The spoken word is in effect ‘transient’ as there is no permanent record of it so this gave rise to this CLT ‘effect’.


If the teacher adopts these four ideas, then CLT suggests that any learning loss will be minimised. More relevant knowledge will be stored in long term memory than would ave happened if these CLT effects hadn’t been attended to. Also, the appropriate schema (i.e. anybody of information that supports understanding) would be built. In this example, it would include the scenes and acts from the play. With this knowledge basis established the teacher could then embark on teaching the conceptually more challenging stuff.

So whilst this example is drawn from English Literature there is also a pattern that could translate to other subjects where the teacher is presented with the challenge of teaching the novice learner new content.

The pattern is thus:

  1. Chunk new content into ‘small steps’
  2. Offer a disproportionately visual/auditory format for delivering new content
  3. Ensure any reading elements of the lesson involve the pupils first and then the teacher second
  4. Ensure all teacher exposition is short and sharp

This should ensure more pupils suffer less earning loss. With this knowledge base established, the teacher should be better placed to use this as a launchpad to the higher-order, more conceptually driven, content.


Steve’s book ‘Cognitive Load Theory – A handbook for teachers’ offers more guidance and information on implementing similar strategies. See our review and find out more by clicking here.


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