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Using the Science of Cognitive Load Theory to Achieve Your Lifelong Learning Goals

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Have you ever tried to learn something new, only to find yourself feeling overwhelmed and struggling to retain the information? You’re not alone. Many people struggle with the challenge of learning new things, but the good news is that cognitive load theory can help.

Cognitive load theory is a psychological framework that explains how our brains process and retain information. It suggests that our working memory has limited capacity, and when we exceed that capacity, our ability to learn and retain new information suffers. By understanding how cognitive load works, we can adjust our approach to learning and make it easier and more effective.

Let’s take the example of learning a new language. When we first start studying a new language, we may try to memorize long lists of vocabulary words and complex grammar rules. However, this approach can quickly overwhelm our working memory and make it difficult to retain any information.

Instead, cognitive load theory suggests that we should break down the language into smaller, more manageable chunks. For example, we might focus on learning a few new vocabulary words each day, practicing them in context, and gradually building our knowledge over time. This approach reduces cognitive load and makes it easier for our brains to process and retain the information.

Another example is learning how to play an instrument. When we first start practicing, we may try to tackle complex pieces of music that require a lot of mental effort. However, this approach can quickly exhaust our working memory and make it hard to make progress.

Instead, cognitive load theory suggests that we should start with simpler pieces of music that are within our current skill level, gradually building our way up to more complex pieces as we improve. By doing this, we reduce cognitive load and make it easier for our brains to process and retain the information.

Cognitive load theory not only deals with the amount of information one can absorb and process but also with managing sensory overload. Our senses can only handle a limited amount of input at once, and trying to focus on multiple sources of input can quickly become overwhelming, leading to a cognitive overload. Therefore, it is essential to narrow the sources of sensory input and focus on one sense at a time when trying to learn something new. This means reducing external stimuli that are not related to the task at hand, such as turning off the TV or closing unnecessary tabs on a computer. By managing sensory overload and minimizing distractions, one can improve their ability to focus and learn effectively.

Consider these three examples:

Let’s say you’re trying to learn a new language by listening to a podcast while browsing social media on your phone and simultaneously checking your email. Your sensory input is overloaded, and you’re not fully attending to the language learning. By narrowing your input and focusing solely on the podcast, you’ll be able to reduce your cognitive load and better retain the language you’re trying to learn.

Or how about a student who is trying to learn a complex math formula for an exam. They have their textbook, notes, and online resources open all at once. As they try to read and understand the formula, they find themselves feeling overwhelmed and unable to focus. To manage their cognitive load, they close all other resources and focus solely on the textbook. This way, they are able to give their full attention to the formula and reduce the chances of becoming overloaded with information.

Or, consider a professional who is attending a conference and has access to multiple breakout sessions at once. They try to attend as many sessions as possible, taking notes and trying to absorb all the information. However, they soon find themselves feeling mentally exhausted and struggling to retain any information. To manage their cognitive load, they choose to attend only one session at a time and take breaks in between. This way, they are able to give their full attention to each session and better retain the information presented.

Here are 10 tips for applying cognitive load theory to achieve your lifelong learning goals:

  1. Break down complex information into smaller chunks.
  2. Practice regularly and consistently to build up knowledge over time.
  3. Be intentional about choosing and managing the sources and amount of sensory input at one time, designing a plan that allows you to focus.
  4. Use visual aids, such as diagrams or images, to help reduce cognitive load.
  5. Focus on one task or idea at a time to avoid overloading your working memory.
  6. Take breaks to give your brain a chance to rest and recharge.
  7. Use analogies or metaphors to help connect new information to existing knowledge.
  8. Use examples and case studies to illustrate complex concepts.
  9. Avoid multitasking, as it can increase cognitive load and reduce learning efficiency.
  10. Find ways to make learning fun and engaging, as this can help reduce cognitive load and increase motivation.

Cognitive load theory is a powerful tool for achieving your lifelong learning goals. In fact, it may be one of the ten most solid and useful learning theories to emerge over the last century! By understanding how our brains process and retain information, we can adjust our approach to learning and make it easier, more effective, and more enjoyable.

If you want to learn more about cognitive load theory, check out the book “Cognitive Load Theory” by John Sweller. Another great resource is the “Cognitive Load Theory: A Little Guide for Teachers.” As the title suggests, it is written for teachers, but almost everything in this little book applies to designing plans to achieve your lifelong learning goals as well.

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