*…**to optimise learning***.**

Hello and welcome to the 87th edition of our fortnightly newsletter, *Things in Education. *

In our series on information processing, we have written about __how information moves from one memory register to another__. We have also written in detail about __sensory memory and managing students’ attention__. The main character in discussions about information processing has always been working memory. We know that working memory is limited in terms of how much information it can hold and for how long. So it is very easy for working memory to get overloaded. And when working memory is overloaded, learning gets hindered. Today, we write about the delicate balance in the load on working memory that is needed to ensure that learning happens.

Pitching content to students at the right level is very important — too difficult and the students’ working memory registers are overloaded, students shut down and learning will not happen; too easy and the students’ working memory registers will not be engaged enough to keep their attention, and learning will not happen. So the goal essentially becomes to optimise the load on working memory to ensure best learning happens.

Working memory has very strict limits when it comes to processing new information. However, it is almost limitless when it comes to dealing with familiar information. So once some information is familiar to the student, the load on their working memory goes down considerably. They are able to recall the information or skill almost instantly and automatically. And this is the time to introduce more complexity to the topic that we are teaching.

**An example from Maths**

For example, only once the students are fluent with the procedure of long division should they be introduced to word problems in division. While learning the procedure of long division, a student’s working memory is engaged in recalling the steps of the process, recalling where the divisor goes, where the dividend goes, and so on. Introducing word problems at this stage will overwhelm the students. After some practice, the students master the procedure of long division, the steps come automatically to them, and they ‘intuitively’ know where the divisor, dividend, etc. go. They may be just going through the motions of practising long division, and they are probably not gaining anything from this exercise anymore. And at this stage, the working memory of the student is underwhelmed. This is the right time to introduce more complexity in the form of word problems. Their working memory is going to engage more in understanding how to decode the language of the word problem to understand which number should be the divisor and which should be the dividend.

Load on working memory is not black and white. Students are not suddenly going to be ready for word problems based on long division. Let’s zoom in further: While learning the process of long division, a teacher will model the process for the student. The working memory of students is engaged in processing the information of the sequence of steps, recalling the vocabulary needed, and so on. As a teacher realises that the students have probably gotten the sequence of steps, the teacher does not need to model the entire process for the students. Maybe she starts off the process with the first few steps and leaves the rest for the students to do. Now the students’ working memory is engaged in trying to recall the sequence of steps of the process of long division. In other words, when the teacher notices that the load on students’ working memory has reduced, she introduces a slight complexity. By the end of the lesson, the students should be able to do the entire procedure by themselves. After a few rounds of practice, the procedure comes automatically to the students. And then the teacher introduces word problems.

The decisions to introduce word problems (which is a different ‘topic’ in the syllabus) and to get students to practise semi-independently are all exercises in pitching the content at the right level.

**An example from English**

Let’s take another example of pitching at the right level. Say a primary school language teacher is doing a lesson on adjectives. Telling the students that adjectives are words that describe nouns and asking them to use adjectives in sentences is going to be too much for students. Their working memories are going to be engaged with what an adjective is, trying to recall the meaning of ‘describing’, trying to recall what nouns are, and so on. All of this may become too much for a primary school student’s working memory.

Instead, if a teacher shows a picture of an elephant and asks students to look at the picture and describe the animal using only one word – one student says grey, the other says big, the third says huge, and another says wrinkly. Now that students have recalled these words, the teacher knows that these words are in the students’ long-term memory, and working memory is not going to be too engaged while thinking about these words. So, this is the right time to increase the complexity of the task – the students can move to using these words in sentences to describe the elephant. Next, the teacher shows a picture of a peacock and repeats the exercise. But this time students are asked to write down the words that describe the bird and sentences to describe the peacock using those words. The teacher has realised that the students have a hang of what describing words are and so it is okay to increase complexity for the students by removing their dependency on the teacher.

The next step – after a lot of practice – would be for the students to visualise a bird or an animal that they might have seen some time and describe it by themselves. For a student at this stage, the knowledge of what adjectives are should be automatic, the sentence construction when describing a noun should be automatic. Only then does the teacher ask students to visualise. Visualising or imagining something is cognitively very heavy on the working memory so should only be attempted once the basic knowledge and skill is acquired. Application or abstraction also need students to visualise, so it is important that we do not hurry them into applying their skill or knowledge.

So ‘pitch it at the right level’ is something that is commonly said, but the ramifications of not doing this are not spelt out from a cognitive perspective. Attributes like motivation or engagement of students are normally cited, but motivation and engagement (or the lack of these) are emergent properties of the load that the students’ working memories are under. Too high or low a cognitive load and you will see lowered motivation and engagement. In the examples used in this piece, the teachers tailored the lessons according to the existing skill and knowledge of their students by using worked examples to build the skill or knowledge and then gradually increasing independent problem solving as the students became more proficient. This is a great way to balance the load on the working memory of students.

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*Edition: 3.35*

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