The Path to More Thinking is Less

PUBLISHED: Jun 16, 2018

In This Episode.

What does that mean?  Dave and Steve explore a highfalutin idea called Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and its implications for teaching and critical thinking.  Want to know why students procrastinate?  Why they revert to their old ways?  How to get them to advanced their thinking?  Then you’ll want to understand CLT and all its immediate implications for how you teach.

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Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, we bring you research driven solutions to critical thinking education. Why? Because as Bertrand Russell said, most people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so. And now your hosts Steve Pearlman and Dave Carillo.

Steve Pearlman: Hey, welcome to the critical thinking initiative. This is Steve Pearlman.

Dave Carillo: I’m Dave Carillo.

Steve Pearlman: And before we get going on anything else today, I just want to say a shout out to everyone who attended my workshop at the Eyak Twenty Eighteen seminar down in Auburn. It was a great time and it was a really great group, great experience and thank you to everyone as well for putting on that conference. It’s a fabulous conference that I hope people who are invested in writing across the curriculum or interested in some of these learning theories will take advantage of heading down there. There are a lot of great sessions and I hope people will take advantage of the whack next year and today. Our subject for the critical thinking initiative is something called cognitive load theory. And this isn’t a particularly new theory, but it’s something that we want to connect to critical thinking. And there is an immediate connection to that which we’ll start to talk about and why. It’s so important that if you want to develop critical thinking in students, you’re giving them a framework that’s applicable across different disciplinary structures for that critical thinking. But I also want to say this, which is that if you’re an educator and learning theory interests you, there’s a lot published on cognitive load theory. It’s a very well established theory, and there are many ways that it implicates and informs how we can become better educators overall, not just with respect to critical thinking, but with respect to all the things that you’re doing in your class.

Dave Carillo: Yeah, and I’m going to jump in on that because that’s something that I think is part of why we started the critical thinking initiative, which is you view for our listeners out there. If you do start reading about this or maybe you have read about this, we’ve been sort of steeped in it for a while. But one of the things that I was amazed at when I just started a few years ago, getting into this particular theory and starting to understand it is sort of what this framework does is provide a solid basis for how those students actual brain is responding to the kinds of things that we would otherwise just throw around or we think that are well understood. So for instance, this idea of scaffolding comes into play and a few significant ways in cognitive load theory. We hear scaffolding all the time, but once you start to understand the term in relation to how the human brain actually works, even a seemingly easy term or an easy thing like scaffolding just starts to reveal this the depth and potential that it has. So again, we’re going to try to make some connections for you in terms of critical thinking, but please go find some of these articles. Go take a look because it is it’s it’s a really interesting theoretical framework, and it can play a significant role in how you strengthen and develop your class to strengthen and develop your students outcomes.

Steve Pearlman: So let’s get into it. I’ll give you the really informal definition, and then I’ll give you a more formal conception of it. So cognitive load theory, if you boil it down into an a centralized, unfairly a centralized nutshell, what it comes down to is that the brain can only do so much at one time, especially in terms of working memory as opposed to long term memory. There’s a very limited amount of information that it can handle very little that it can actually focus on functionally,

Dave Carillo: And they’re not vague about that. It’s I mean, a lot of the articles that we see are like three or four significant pieces of information roughly

Steve Pearlman: Or the seven. I think that the seven plus

Dave Carillo: Magic Miller’s magic number is another way of thinking, but it’s something that we know that’s fairly

Steve Pearlman: Concrete. So the issue then, is that if you want students to be able to engage in critical thinking, then we have to find a way to effectively reduce the cognitive load for them in terms of what’s involved in that. And let me give you an example of what that means from a lay perspective. And then as I said, we’ll move into some of the researchers. You’ve spoken more eloquently about this, perhaps, but let’s say you want a student to figure out how to drive from point A to point B in their car. And you’re actually you actually want them to get in their car and drive from point A to point B in a city? Well, you have students who don’t know how to drive yet, so the student gets in the car and all of their cognitive load is not really on. Figuring out what’s the most efficient way for me to get from Point A to point B. All of their cognitive load is consumed by how do I operate this car, which pedal on my pressing? How do I steer? And so on and so forth? Well, the analogy there is that when you assign a paper to a student, if you want them to think critically in that paper, what happens based on cognitive load theory is if they don’t have a deep structure for understanding what that critical thinking involves already, if that’s not already well baked into them, they can’t write the paper and do the thinking, solve the problem that you want solved in the paper because they’re still trying to figure out how to manipulate the car.

Steve Pearlman: They’re still trying to figure out what critical thinking really means. What is that? Actually, another way to think about it might be that there’s really an intermediary between the student and getting to the objective of the assignment and the intermediary that fills their cognitive load is figuring out what you really want them to do to complete that assignment. If you’re saying that you want them to engage in analysis, their cognitive load might go into, well, what? What does this educator mean by analysis, really? And try to figure that out instead of just doing analysis as it applies to the problem that you offered? So what we’re bringing forward to you today with respect to cognitive load theory is the importance of establishing for students that deep structure of critical thinking. So they don’t have to think about the thinking. They can think about the problem through the things that so let me move into a more authoritative publication about cognitive load theory.

Steve Pearlman: And again, there are so many articles on this. We’re trying to bring you a couple that we feel captured a couple of key points. Well, this one is by Marion Bohr and Queller and its cognitive load theory and health, professional education, design principles and strategies. And they offer, I think, what’s a fairly good definition of cognitive load. From a more formal perspective, cognitive load theory assumes that the human cognitive system has limited working memory that can hold no more than five to nine information elements and actively process no more than two to four elements simultaneously. It is able to deal with information for no more than a few seconds, and almost all information is lost after about 20 seconds unless it is refreshed by rehearsal. The theory emphasizes that these working memory capacity and duration limitations only apply to novel information obtained through sensory memory. Working memory has no known limitations when dealing with information retrieved from long term memory. In effect, long term memory alters the characteristic of working memory. Long term memory holds cognitive schemas, and that term cognitive schema is very important.

Dave Carillo: Yeah, it’s very important.

Steve Pearlman: Long term memory holds cognitive schemas that vary in their degree of complexity and automation. Human expertise comes from knowledge organized by these schemas, not from an ability to engage in reasoning with many elements that have not been organized into long term memory. Human working memory simply is not able to process many elements. And therefore, that brings us back to my point, which is that if we want students to be able to engage in deep cognitive tasks, we have to give them schemas that enable them to engage those cognitive tasks so that as they are starting to engage a text or multiple sources that they’re looking at, their cognitive load is not consumed by how to think about those sources, but about what those sources are doing and immediately engaging those through a schema that they have for which to engage them. I’ll go on with the article here where they add, and I think this helps to clarify it. Fully automated schemas are developed as a function of extensive practice and connect a central executive organizing information or knowledge that needs to be processed in working memory. Under these circumstances, there are no limits to working memory. For instance, an experienced medical doctor recognizes a quote warm shock unquote resulting from redistribution of cardiac output at a single glance. By contrast, when dealing with novel information for which no schema based central executive is available, working memory has limitations. Thus, for a novice student, a patient with warm shock may show little more than an unstructured set of symptoms.

Dave Carillo: Steve, you know what I want to jump into because I think it’s important to sort of draw a distinction that we’re not necessarily seeing in this literature per say, but I think is important for us, right? A lot of what the literature talks about is building knowledge, knowledge, construction. Handling information, and I think the distinction that I would want to make is the difference between information as a whole, bunch of dates and facts and things that a more traditional sort of lecture based class would value, right? And I think that what we would want to put forward here is that the information that’s really important in the information we want the student to learn and understand and eventually develop and cultivate in that that deep structure is is this scheme itself like the schema becomes the information is what I would say is the distinction we would want to make. So it’s not so much that we want students to retain a whole bunch of information, although that could happen or that does happen is they become experts in a particular field as much as we want the the schema to become that sort of information with which the brain uses and draws on to comprehend and deal with data, is that is that right? Is that a distinction we would want to make? Am I confusing things? I think that, yeah, I don’t know if I

Steve Pearlman: Would be the only way I would depart from that, maybe a little or modified is to say that it’s not that the schema is the information is the schema is the knowledge platform or the functional or the cognitive platform from which they could engage into that.

Dave Carillo: And I thank you for that clarification. That’s essentially what I’m going for. And I think it’s important because you’re reading a lot and there’s a lot of talk about knowledge and a lot of talk about information in this. And one of the things that we always make clear in terms of the kind of work we do with faculty is that if the student has that scheme right, if they have the knowledge base, which is a process for thinking critically, then any content can be engaged in a much deeper way. So that’s the kind of distinction I’m drawing. That’s a really good point, right? Is that is it because we are talking about knowledge and we don’t have enough time to really split hairs here? And so that’s that’s something that I think is important for our listeners to sort of carry with them as we move forward. One of the things that Feldman says is that one of the things that cognitive load theory works to explain is that when students don’t have that sort of deep structure, you don’t have the schema to draw. There are two basic things that that can happen, and this is what I love about the kind of research that we do, because even if we don’t get to all of it, there’s so many things that we talk to faculty about that we see students doing that.

Dave Carillo: Now we’re starting to understand in much better ways because of our understanding of the brain. But if students don’t have that schema, then goes on to talk about two different things that they generally do. So the first, if a student is confronted with a problem and they don’t have the proper schema or knowledge base to draw on, they’ll either quote revert to using older or less effortful approaches to the problem that impose a less heavy load on working memory end quote. So to sort of do an analogy, right? And this is something that we talked to, we’ve said before on this podcast and we talked to faculty about you assign a paper and we all want students to analyze or think critically about the material. Right? So we have this whole analyze Moby Dick, just roll and analyze Moby Dick. Find something that you think is significant. Think critically about. It sounds great. Students don’t have a schema for critical thinking. What cognitive load theory suggests is that they’re going to revert to what they do know, right? So and we’ve seen this a lot. We’ll give students will give students the paper that says Analyze X, Y and Z, think critically about A, B and C, and what are we get in return? We get

Steve Pearlman: Summary. And I think what you’re saying is we don’t see this a lot that we see this a lot. We see this all the time. This is like the mainstay of what we see happen, especially first year writers in the academy. But even at

Dave Carillo: Even especially in much more senior year, exactly where senior writers. And it’s and it’s interesting. And this is and this is why I’m glad we’re doing this on one hand. One of the reasons why they revert to summary is because that’s how they’ve been assessed in the past. Right, right. So that’s how they think they’re going to be assessed regardless of what the assignment says. That’s what they know, but what cognitive load theory suggests and what the studies are starting to bear out is that it’s not so much that they’ve just been assessed on somebody. So that’s what they’re going to do. But that’s what their brain draws on specifically, because that’s all they have,

Steve Pearlman: And I agree with that. What I love about it is what I love being able to present to the listeners about this because we’ve talked about the importance of assessment. Yeah. Exactly right. But this shows another reason why without a schema that’s baked in, that’s explicitly taught and baked in for the students. They will revert to summarizing or to whatever prior mode of writing or cognition that they’re used to. Regardless of what you’re trying to extract.

Dave Carillo: Right. And that’s something that Feldon gets into later on in the article. In terms of, well, there are best practices that directly engage this function of the brain so that students can learn more. The other thing is that they need that practice right has to be done over and over again. So, you know, a one off assignment. This is this is your analysis paper. You will write it and you will turn it in is not necessarily going to produce anything that we want knowledge based or not, because the practice is important, not in some sort of like traditional wisdom way, but actually because the brain relies on that kind of practice to develop that schema and its deep structure. The second thing that students are apt to do and this is also really interesting is quote default to pursuing less effortful goals. And this is something that I hope we get to, but we can come back to another podcast. But this has to do with a mode of unconscious learning that cognitive load theory talks about as well. But in this case, they might procrastinate. They might, they might check their email, they might avoid the topic entirely. What he’s also saying is, is you’re not going to get the kind of result that you want simply because there’s no knowledge base for that level of complexity. So you see two outcomes, right? One is, well, they didn’t do the assignment or you’ll see like minimal effort in doing the assignment simply because it’s too complex and

Steve Pearlman: Sort of drawing that back to the study I referenced or the article that I referenced when I hear what you’re saying is that, look, the novice physician or layperson is going to come upon this person in warm shock. There is no schema for knowing which of those symptoms to pay attention to more than others, how to make sense of a relationship between those so the layperson may try to do something or may just sort of throw their hands up and say, I don’t know what to do with this person, and that’s sort of what the students are doing. In fact, when they’re confronted with certain assignments from us without a schema, they come upon this assignment and they go, Well, I don’t really know what it is I’m supposed to do. So they’re just going to fall back and do the stuff that I’ve always done. Exactly, or I’m kind of throwing my hands up. I might as well check my email and go for a walk because I don’t really know how to approach this thing anyway. And at some point I’ll probably submit something, but I don’t really know what I’m doing exactly.

Dave Carillo: And that’s all based on this idea that what’s happening is, is that the assignment or what we eventually want students to to do with the material in our class or the problems we present to them in class are over tasking the brain. It’s overloading cognitively these students.

Steve Pearlman: So let me bring that into our construct of critical thinking because you talk about how it applies in yes. So here’s how we resolve for that. And this is what cognitive load theory is. One of the things we looked at when we were developing our critical thinking model and its implications for us are very powerful because it really makes the argument that students need a definitive schema for critical thinking and the new schema for critical thinking that works across disciplines that don’t have to figure out a new schema every time they get into it.

Dave Carillo: Exactly. I’m glad you brought that up.

Steve Pearlman: Keep going. Ok, thank you for the. No problem. I mean, I always like a pat on the back

Dave Carillo: Any time you want to be interrupted.

Steve Pearlman: So let me give you an example of how this plays out in my writing course, and it’s how it would play out for it, really, how it plays out anywhere on our campus or for anyone using the critical thinking model. So the model has five categories that construct a process for the student to think critically. And while we show them the whole model, initially, what we do is we try to walk them through it. There are different ways to ease them into that schema, to use that frame now for it, but we might just start them in. The first one is is to be able to analyze their source material. That’s the first step. We might just do exercise on on learning to analyze source material in terms of separating claims and evidence and reasoning apart, rather than just being able to summarize it well as students move into writing that paper assignment, what happens is that starts to ease their cognitive load. Now there are still four other elements to the schema that they have to be able to work through, but that part of the cognitive load start. He’s ease up, and then as we replicate that, as we go around the whole cycle and around the whole, we’ll all of those cognitive loads start to ease up on them.

Steve Pearlman: And first, they’re spending their time in class trying to figure out what is this schema? What is the schema mean? What does analysis mean? What does it mean to generate a problem as the next phase of it and so forth? All these things are things that are taking precedent in their cognitive load. It’s filling up their cognitive load. But and this is where the magic happens once they are able to take that schema and put it into their long term memory. They don’t have to figure out how to think about something. They can just go in and apply the schema and think about it, and it could be anything into any subject matter. It could be for any discipline, it could be for any class. The point is that what we’ve done for the student is we removed that cognitive load that has to pay attention to trying to figure out what the schema is in order to address the problem. And that’s why we see students who will not procrastinate as much, students who will engage the topic. Students who can approach any writing assignment more easily. Once that schema is in place for them,

Dave Carillo: I’m glad you brought up the earlier development of our instrument, how we brought this in, even at the beginning, because one of the ideas that folks often bring up when we do do workshops and we do present at conferences is that you can’t think critically in English the same way you think critically in biology, right? Or that critical thinking is domain specific that it’s different for psychology than it is for physics. And folks who bring that idea often use that as as a way to sort of discount any sort of efforts toward developing a system that allows students to learn and keep building their critical thinking abilities throughout their college career elementary school career,

Steve Pearlman: Using the scheme and deepening their exact

Dave Carillo: Right

Steve Pearlman: To explore the complexity

Dave Carillo: Of that which is which is a problem that we brought up in other venues. One of the big issues with poor critical thinking outcomes is that students are often forced to like, learn one way they’re assessed and then relearn it again next semester and they relearn three different types. And one of the things I think is important to understand here is is that our thinking through this problem, in part using cognitive load theory is it allowed us to develop our instrument, our schema in such a way that once students understand it, the first or the second or the third time, or experience it the first or second or third time by the time they get to the part or classes, that schema already being in place decreases the cognitive load immediately, and they can do it from class to class. And it’s important to understand that this sort of deep structure is important because once it took place and want something authentic is in place as a deep structure, you can engage in any kind of content. It’s not so much that you’re going to know the terminology from discipline to discipline, but if you know that in order to understand the material, you need to go beyond just what an argument is saying to how it’s using evidence to say it. That becomes the deep structure. You can immediately start to understand the material in any discipline, and it’s not so much that evidence in English class looks like evidence in a physics or a biology class, as much as if a student understands that any argument they’re going to make requires their use of evidence or any any kind of conclusion they draw about a problem is going to require their evaluation of evidence that understand that evidence is necessary in any discipline positions them already to work with a much lower cognitive load. They’re already in place.

Steve Pearlman: And what’s critical here, and it’s not really that it depends on our particular model or we’re fans of it. What we want to stress is the importance of building in a critical thinking schema for students. That works, and that’s what becomes so important. And I’m going to go back to my article here show another reason why this is the case because it says quote for learners to fully understand the material, it must ultimately present it in its full complexity. Multi-step strategies, rather than single step principles, are needed for sequencing materials from low to high element interactivity so that tasks are presented in their full complexity only in a later learning phase. That’s the general perspective on learning from cognitive load theory, and there’s actually been actually some. Additional publication that sort of challenges that principle in certain ways, which is very interesting, but we’re not going to get into that now. What I want to point out, though, is that from our experience, at least if students have a critical thinking schema about how to approach material, the sequencing of that material from simple to complex becomes far less important that we’re able to engage material from the point of complexity and its full complexity much earlier on with students in courses. Because, as we were saying, they have a schema for how to engage complexity of material.

Steve Pearlman: Already, they don’t need to figure that out. The content becomes subordinate to the schema that is the pathway into that content. As they are fluent in that pathway, then they can contend with any greater amount of complexity in the material itself. So it actually, I think, sort of flips cognitive load theory a little bit on its head, at least in our experience, it does in terms of the need to build from simple material into the complex. Once they really have a good critical thinking schema, they can dig into the complex much more. And I guess maybe a good analogy for this is if we go back to the idea of the surgeon right, then we have somebody who can look at a very complex set of symptoms and immediately be able to contend with that patient right away. Or if we go back to the driving analogy, if we have somebody like we talked about in an earlier podcast, the test to become a taxicab driver in London and how you have to memorize basically the entire map of London in order to be able to do that. That person has such a schema for that that even some kind of complexity to that camera. There are detours, there are roads blocked off and so forth become a much easier problem. You know, I

Dave Carillo: Would do address, yeah, no. I think that’s I’m glad you call that back. And that would be really something very interesting to start to research as to how in what way or in if there is in any way that cognitive load theory is now starting to sort of be looked at in relation to neuroplasticity, which is is one of the one of the things that that taxicab driving study proved was that new neurons and neural pathways can be created. But I love what you said before, and this is something that we this is something we say a lot, but that it’s something that also is immediately flipped on its head once the process starts working. Is it? Yeah. Well, the the content is subordinate to the to the schema. To some extent, it’s subordinate in terms of what the student needs to know in order to engage it. Once the student understands and has that knowledge base, that critical thinking schema in place, any amount of content can become the driving force for the class I. Suddenly, it’s not so much of what you might be able to cover, as much as how much the students are able to critically engage in. And what we find is that engagement goes way up. And that’s something that’s important because you go into your discipline because you love your discipline, because you’re interested in your discipline. And what cognitive load theory is saying is if the student has a knowledge base that schema in place, they can start to engage in your discipline the way you engage. Maybe not in the same level entirely, but they will be much better situated to start asking the kind of questions you ask. Dealing with the problems that folks in your field deal with and it becomes a much more satisfying experience for everybody and the students then cover more. Learn more.

Steve Pearlman: So I guess that’s pretty much a healthy nutshell.

Dave Carillo: Yeah.

Steve Pearlman: On cognitive load theory and a quick look. If there’s a takeaway, if you’re thinking that, gee, I’m dissatisfied with the caliber of critical thinking, I’m getting on the writing or I’m dissatisfied with the extent to which students are engaging this material, really consider the importance of building for them that critical thinking schema that enables them to get into it. And you know, like our next edition of our work is coming out, it’s available on the website. If you want to order for a preview or you want to order it for all your students or what have you, but again, it doesn’t have to be our schema. The principle of this still matters greatly because so many faculty approach critical thinking as if it will happen on its own, as if it will happen tacitly. And what cognitive load theory shows us very explicitly, is that it will not. And the reason that your students are procrastinating, the reason they’re reverting to summary and the reason they’re not doing the things that your assignment is asking them to do and those higher order tasks is simply because their cognitive load is being overwhelmed by the number of factors that that must entail, and if we can reduce those factors through a schema that they can have. Lied to any context, to any assignment. Then you’re able to get better results from that particular assignment,

Dave Carillo: So thanks so much for tuning in and we’ll be with you all summer. We’re going to produce as many of these podcasts as we can while we can. So thanks so

Steve Pearlman: Much. I think we’re going to have three a day.

Dave Carillo: We’re going to have three a day. That’s not that can’t happen. Putting a kibosh on

Steve Pearlman: What if we drink while we

Dave Carillo: Then then then we can podcast til we pass out. Basically, it’ll be like, well, live stream 12 hours a day. Yes, exactly. Right? Yeah, yeah. Start by thoughtful discussion of education, morphing into rants. And then, you know, if we’re lucky, a black bear will appear in the back of your backyard. It’s not been known to happen,

Steve Pearlman: So it’s not unusual, right? Thanks, everyone. Take care.

Voiceover: This episode of the Critical Thinking Initiative is brought to you by the Critical Thinking Initiative. Org Visit the Critical Thinking Initiative for an ever expanding resource of books, syllabi, videos and other resources on critical thinking. The Critical Thinking Initiative is always seeking out other people in education who want to work towards raising critical thinking outcomes locally and nationally.


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