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Teaching in the Time of Corona: Cognitive Load Theory

I’m a student completing my last semester of graduate school. Just two weeks ago, I was focused, organized, absorbing new information—I had my eyes on the prize. Now, I’m lucky if I can complete one thing on my daily school to-do list. Also, graduation is now canceled. My kids are remote learning. My husband is furloughed. I’m working from home. Navigating life and learning is like wandering through a fog-filled maze.

Can you relate?

Like me, your cognitive load is enormous right now, and if you are transitioning your educational program to a virtual learning environment, know that your struggle is real and your students are likely struggling, too.

What’s cognitive load? The simple definition is that it’s the total amount of mental effort being used in working memory. Cognitive Load Theory was developed by psychologist John Sweller. In 1988, he published a paper on the subject in the journal Cognitive Science. Cognitive load is typically increased when intrinsic and extrinsic demands are imposed on a learner, making the task of processing new information overly complex. Emotions interact with reason to either support or, in this case, inhibit learning.

Research shows that students need to feel safe and emotionally secure before they can focus on the curriculum. In a recent NPR article, Rebecca Barrett-Fox, an assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University, says "Your class is not the highest priority of their or your life right now."

If you are nervously navigating virtual learning, do this first: LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS.

Yes, it’s that easy. Also, keep it simple—for your learners and for you. We are asking a lot of our brains right now and the cognitive load is great. That said, learning can still happen. Creating the right learning climate and environment can make all the difference. Educational neuroscientist, David Sousa explains, “When students feel positive about their learning environment, endorphins are released in the brain. These ‘feel good’ chemicals produce a sense of euphoria and stimulate the frontal lobes, making learning more pleasurable and successful.”

Here are a few tips to create a positive learning environment:

  • Be real: Tell your students you recognize how overloaded they must feel. Let them know you are feeling a little overloaded, too. If this is your first time teaching virtually, tell them. At the same time, reassure them that you have experience with the material and working with expectant or new parents. This creates a mutual understanding that, “Hey, we’re all human and we’re in this together.”
  • This is a learning community: Incorporate elements of humor and connection to counteract social isolation. Begin class by asking how everyone is doing. Encourage your learners to check in on each other.
  • Embrace the elephant in the room: Don’t shy away from getting emotional or talking about fears surrounding COVID-19. Many expectant parents are now facing the realization that they may not be together when their baby is born. Another fear is if their baby needs to go to the NICU. Currently, most NICUs are enforcing strict no-visitor rules.  While you’re not offering therapy, you’re still in a powerful position to help your learners feel informed and empowered, instead of helpless and scared.
  • Check-in about well-being and basic needs: Keep your virtual door open. Remind your students that you are there for them. If they are having trouble accessing housing, food, water, health care, mental health care, or other necessary resources, invite them to reach out. You may be aware of community resources that they don’t know about.
  • Words can calm: Incorporate calming messages into your presentation that focus your learners’ attention on the present moment. Right now, everything is fine. We are doing what I can. We can make it through this trying time. We have so much to look forward to. My baby is healthy and growing.
  • The Mind-Body Connection: Share guided meditation or breathing videos via email. There are many great ones on YouTube. Talk about the benefits of meditation and breathing. Giving the WHY always makes more of an impact on learners and may increase motivation. Again—keep it simple! You can explain that deep breathing and meditation (and yoga) work with several neurological pathways that can help calm the brain. They provide psychological distance from the anxiety-inducing issues. It also counteracts the physiological responses of anxiety, such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and muscular tension. Reducing these things are important for a healthy pregnancy and for learning.
  • Power of music: If you have your learners engaging in various activities in the virtual learning environment, have some music playing in the background to fill the space. Music is one of the most powerful ways to reduce cognitive load. On top of that, it has the power to pull you from other things and immerse you in whatever you choose. Music can regulate all aspects of your mind/body-system: thoughts, anxiety, anger, fear, sleep, mood, and even loneliness. It puts us in a favorable mental state to learn new information.

As an adult learner (who is learning about adult education), I’m grateful for professors who are reaching out, being flexible and patient, authentic, honest, and acknowledging that things are just weird right now. They are experts in the field of adult education and stellar examples of how to teach adults in the time of crisis.

Research tells us that when cognitive load is managed well, students can learn new skills easier than when high cognitive load interferes with the creation of new memories. So, try to think of yourself as a cognitive load manager--be flexible, be creative, be imperfect, be human, but most importantly, be gentle on yourself as you expand your teaching toolbox. You aren’t just a teacher right now; you are also a learner.

Kristen Gosse, BA, BS, M.Ed., Senior Curriculum Writer & Researcher at InJoy has her Master's in Adult Education and Training. We rely on her talents to help create the material you may be using in your classroom, one-on-one, or by the bedside. 

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