How Cognitive Load Changes with Collaborative Tasks

Cognitive load theory is the theory relating to the limits of working memory and the points at which learning is interrupted because the task is applying too large a load on the cognitive activity. There has been heaps of research around this theory and today I want to focus on the relationship between cognitive load and collaborative tasks.

Hattie and Yates in their book “Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn.” explain that the working memory can generally only handle 4 items for thinking unless the topic is well known and then this can be expanded up to 8 items. They also note that one of the key issues for cognitive load is not just the number of items, but more the number of relationships between them. 

Among the teaching approaches that can be used to decrease cognitive load, Hattie and Yates discuss the need for prior knowledge for the new items to connect with. This allows for more items to be used in working memory. Having memory jogs and keywords with images around also helps to decrease the load on the working memory of students. But, this article is more concerned with the information about group work and specifically collaborative tasks helping to decrease the cognitive load on students.

The article “From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory” by Kirschner et al discusses Collaborative tasks and cognitive load agreeing with Hattie and Yates that social learning decreases the cognitive load through the creation of collective working memory. Basically, you have more people to remember the key items decreasing the cognitive load and allowing for more items to be included in the thinking and learning. But, there are some additional aspects that can help or hinder this general effect.

  1.  The task needs to be complex enough to justify the collaborative approach, if not the “extra collective working memory” leads the group members to become distracted and the learning does not happen.
  2.  The collaborative task should have guidance and support. This can include group roles, topics to focus on, and scaffolds.
  3.  The group requires good collaborative skills. If the students don’t generally collaborate well or have these skills it will cause an increase in cognitive load and distractions.
  4.  The fewer members in the collaborative task the better. 3 is probably the ideal number. more than this causes an increase in cognitive load and a decrease in learning.
  5.  The more the group has worked together the better the collaborative task will be at decreasing cognitive load and increasing the learning happening.

One of the aspects of this paper that stood out to me was that “for complex tasks/problems, collaboration becomes a scaffold (just like worked examples) for individuals’ knowledge acquisition processes.” That is, when working collaboratively in small groups, students create a working scaffold for thinking and in essence work through examples with and for each other (whether literally or not) to help the individual learn the content. Given that Hattie and Yates tell us we should be providing worked examples of successful learning for our students to help them become successful learners, the collaborative approach should have a sizeable effect on student learning.

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  1. Hattie, J., & Yates, G. C. (2013). Visible learning and the science of how we learn. Routledge. 
  2. Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F., & Zambrano, J. (2018). From cognitive load theory to collaborative cognitive load theory. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 13(2), 213-233.

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