Reducing cognitive load in Oxford Smart Activate

Oxford Smart Activate

Cognitive load relates to the amount of information that a person can hold in their working memory at any one time. During learning, information is held in your working memory until it has been processed enough to transfer into your larger capacity long-term memory. If new information is not transferred, it will most likely be forgotten.

What is cognitive load theory?

Cognitive load theory was first developed by psychologist John Sweller in 1988. Sweller proposed that as our working memory’s capacity is limited, we can become overwhelmed (i.e. experience cognitive overload) when too much information is presented at once. Much of that information may be lost as a result.

In the classroom, cognitive overload can arise from:

  • Introducing content at the wrong time or wrong level
  • Instructional methods that overload the working memory with information that does not directly contribute to learning
  • Providing too much information at once

By applying cognitive load theory to the resources that we present to students, we can reduce the possibility of cognitive overload. This subsequently creates a more focused learning approach and leads to greater student success.

How have we reduced cognitive load in Oxford Smart Activate?

We have ensured that we are teaching the right content, at the right level, at the right time.

We focused on the sequence in which Biology, Chemistry and Physics are taught to ensure that they:

  • Are logical
  • Build on prior knowledge
  • Develop students’ knowledge sequentially

These qualities are essential for reducing cognitive load as learning activities that draw upon your existing knowledge expand the usable capacity of your working memory by not requiring ‘processing power’.

Revisiting concepts is proven to increase long-term knowledge retention, and we have included new ‘Reactivate your knowledge’ questions. These questions refresh students’ pre-existing knowledge: reducing cognitive load, allowing them to build on prior concepts that they have already mastered and maximising their available working memory.

To ensure that information was presented at the right level, we wrote secure learning outcomes for each identified learning objective. Each outcome was then differentiated into the three bands of the assessment model on which the Oxford Smart Activate assessment model is based:

  • ‘Developing’ (working towards)
  • ‘Secure’ (having a secure grasp of the knowledge or skills specified in the equipment)
  • ‘Extending’ (moving beyond)

We have updated many of our diagrams.

Another way that we have reduced the cognitive load of Activate is by combining multiple sources of visual information or text and images. A labelled diagram places a lower demand on your working memory than one that has the labels listed at the side. We have made improvements to diagrams throughout our original Activate books. Please see below for an example.

BEFORE: A diagram of an animal cell from Activate 1 (2013 edition). In this example, students will constantly go between the diagram and the text to process the information.
AFTER: An updated diagram of an animal cell from Activate 1 (2022 edition).

We have removed any unnecessary images

We have ensured that all images clearly illustrate a key piece of scientific learning as opposed to being merely decorative. Too many images can distract a learner’s focus and use up valuable capacity in their working memory. We have reviewed each artwork and photo in the new Oxford Smart Activate student books for its appropriateness and relevance.

Further reading:

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