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Research School Network: Effective Professional Development: Managing Cognitive Load We explore the first of the 14 mechanisms from the EEF’s recent guidance report

Effective Professional Development: Managing Cognitive Load

We explore the first of the 14 mechanisms from the EEF’s recent guidance report

by Bradford Research School
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The new EEF Effective Professional Development guidance report recommends that when designing and selecting professional development, focus on the mechanisms’. Mechanisms are the core building blocks of a programme’. The PD report sets out 14 of these mechanisms – in this blog we explore mechanism 1.

Mechanisms of PD

Mechanism 1: Managing cognitive load

This mechanism falls under the category of Build Knowledge’, which is framed in the following way:

When designing and delivering PD, it is likely to be important to present new knowledge in ways that support understanding. As any teacher would with their own class, PD facilitators must pay close attention to how they structure and build the knowledge taught through the programme.

Managing cognitive load means that we need to deliver professional development in such a way as to avoid overloading participants. The guidance recommends removing less relevant content, focusing only on the most relevant content, varying presentation via the use of multiple examples; or employing strategies such as dual coding — the combination of verbal and visual instruction.

Focus on the most relevant content

Most things that you want to put in a PD session or programme feel relevant. In a school CPD session on questioning for example, it might feel appropriate to cover a range of things: different questioning techniques, ideas from Teach Like a Champion, mini whiteboard routines, formative assessment, retrieval, even behaviour. It’s not that these things aren’t relevant to how questions can be used in the classroom, it’s just that there are so many differing elements that teachers would be overloaded.

Far better to keep it simple by focusing on one aspect and include only what is relevant to that. Anything which doesn’t help teachers get better at this, will be a distraction.

This is also an argument against one-off professional development. We have an urge to fit everything in and as a result participants are overwhelmed. Professional development over time allows for a gradual introduction of elements. In the example above, we might first introduce mini whiteboard routines and then later focus on responsive teaching using mini whiteboards. Other approaches such as coaching also allow for a regular incremental approach where only the relevant priority is focused on.

Use presentations to enhance not distract

Even when we choose relevant content and sequence appropriately to avoid overloading, we introduce problems in the way we design materials, not least our presentation tools. At their best, slides can help us articulate complex processes well, they can act as a visual accompaniment to what we are saying, they can be useful prompts. At their worst, they are ugly, messy, busy distractions that do the opposite of what we want.

Andy Tharby has outlined some principles for designing powerpoints using cognitive load theory in this blog. While that blog focuses on pupils, it isn’t hard to transfer that to an adult learning perspective. Here are just a couple of them:

  • Remove distracting or superfluous images.
  • Avoid reading out text that is already written on slide

In these examples, we are choosing to add a distraction that is competing for attention with the message we want to convey.

You can use a number of tools to improve the design of slides. To align features, use gridlines and guides. But the best tool that you have is probably the delete button.

Consider what participants are thinking about at every stage

We can’t control what everyone is thinking about in CPD sessions, but we can at least try and manage attention. Some of this aligns with the last section, e.g. if we want them to think about our explanation of interleaving, we make sure that we don’t have a hilarious cartoon in the bottom right tangentially supporting the concept. We can also make careful choices about when we have our PD. Is after school the best time to ensure everyone can focus on the session and not the marking they have to do, or the incident that happened at lunch time, or would it be better in the morning as part of the school timetable? And in an era of online CPD, how can we make it easier for participants to allow their attention to be fully focused? These are not easy things to manage but certainly should be considered.

Another way to manage cognitive load is addressed in Mechanism 2: Revisiting prior learning. We’ll pick up this next time.

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