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Managing cognitive load

The amount of information people can process is essential to effective teaching or training. Indeed, bombarding learners with too much information at once, called cognitive overload, is one of the chief obstacles to learning. By creating instructional materials that overwhelm the learner's processing capacity, you can easily sabotage your own teaching or training efforts from the outset.

Imagine studying a chessboard where 24 pieces are arranged in a game in progress. Could you replicate the arrangement of the pieces after looking at the board for 10 seconds? How many times would you need to look at it, for a few seconds each time, before you could reproduce it from memory? A researcher named Herbert Simon asked groups of chess masters and chess novices to perform this task. Not surprisingly, the chess masters needed fewer exposures to the board—about four, on average—to reproduce the arrangement of pieces. The novices, on the other hand, needed several more exposures—as many as ten. What accounted for such differences between the abilities of the experts and the novices? Did the experts have better memory powers, or did their superior performance simply reflect their greater experience in the game of chess?

To distinguish between these alternatives, Simon repeated the experiment, but with the pieces placed randomly on the board rather than arranged in the form of a game in progress. The results are summarized in the following graphs.

Middle Games—In Study 1, the number of tries needed to reassemble mid-game chessboards was measured. Novices were compared to masters.

Random Middle Games—In Study 2, the experiment was repeated using randomly constructed chessboards.

Had the masters indeed enjoyed superior powers of memory, their ability to reconstruct the board would have surpassed that of the novices in both phases of the experiment. Interestingly, however, the random arrangement of the pieces in the second phase significantly disrupted the masters in their attempts to reconstruct what they had seen, while the novices, for whom the arrangement of pieces had little or no meaning, were better off.

When challenged to "learn" the chessboards they were shown in Simon's experiment, the masters engaged in what's called a top-down analysis of each one: they looked for meaningful patterns in the arrangement of the pieces, to match the many such patterns they had stored in long-term memory. But when presented with meaningless information, in the form of randomly arranged pieces, their learning process was radically disrupted.

What does this tell us about working memory? In a widely accepted formula for the capacity of working memory, researcher George Miller wrote that it can hold "seven plus or minus two chunks" of information. But a chunk is a relative concept. In the first phase of Simon's chessboard experiment, the novices looking at the board saw 24 separate pieces of information—that is, 24 chunks. The masters saw patterns in the arrangement of the pieces, which enabled them to process what they saw in larger, but fewer, chunks. Clearly, the more expertise one has, the larger the chunks of information one can manage in working memory.

In some ways, experts in a subject really do "think differently" from the way novices think. That's why experts in a field sometimes make bad teachers. Because they've been immersed in their area of expertise for years, they often try to convey it in chunks that are too large and complex for novices to grasp. Training developed by experts often produces cognitive overload in learners because the experts have failed to put themselves in the psychological shoes of a novice.

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