It’s 4:25 p.m. and I’ve been working nonstop since 7:00 a.m. this morning. Actually, that’s not entirely true. On three separate occasions, I close my laptop, lace up my running shoes, and head for a walk in the brisk fall air. I absorb the sun’s rays (rare for an Oregon November) and stare out at the Red Maples ablaze in front of the dark purple Raywood Ash. I’m not thinking about my projects or the lesson plans I’ll be teaching later this week or the training I’m leading tomorrow morning. I’m being deliberately unproductive.
Except, I’m not being unproductive. While my body is at rest, my mind is making connections between ideas, solving problems, and developing new neural pathways. This is especially true at 1:00 pm, when I take a nap instead of going for a walk. In each case, I arrive back from these breaks and I’m more mentally alert, energized, and more creative.
These “brain breaks” are a small example of planning my creative work around the idea of cognitive load. Projects demand a significant amount of mental energy and if we’re not careful, we can hit a state of cognitive overload; which can lead to stress, frustration, anger, and exhaustion. In this article, I share how we can design project-based learning experiences that reduce cognitive load for students.
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Our Brains Need Rest
Imagine holding a ten-pound dumbbell above your head. For many people, that’s pretty easy. It’s what you do with a shoulder press or an overhead triceps extension. Now hold that weight for two minutes. It’s still possible but more challenging. Your arm might start shaking. Your muscles burn. Now hold it for fifteen minutes. An hour. Two hours. Over time, even a small amount of weight grows unbearable. Your muscles can only handle the weight for so long before needing a break for rest and recovery.
Similarly, when we’re learning, our brains can only handle so much information before needing a break. There’s a lot of interesting research in the book Rest, that suggests we are more productive and more creative when we spend time resting.
There’s a great article on this, where author Thomas Oppong wrote:
According to research, the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. You lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.
When faced with a long creative problem, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task and improve your idea generation approach. A structured downtime can help you do your best work.
We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don’t take regular breaks. If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression. Your brain needs downtime to remain industrious and generate better ideas.
But it goes beyond simply needing a break or getting some rest. Just as a weightlifter can only hold a certain amount of weight in their hands, a human mind can only handle a certain amount of information in the moment. Dr. John Sweller coined the term “cognitive load” to describe the amount of information working memory can hold in the moment.
What is Cognitive Load?
Do you ever find yourself tuning out a lecture or an hour into it? The information might be good but you sometimes want to press “pause” and just take it all in? Maybe jot down a few notes? Perhaps think about it for a moment or talk to a neighbor?
Ever noticed that you tend to forget most information when you cram for a test? Perhaps you remember those college days when you slammed a few Red Bulls and stared, glassy-eyed at the highlighted text you were re-reading (a strategy that turns out to be largely ineffective). The next day, as you stare at the multiple choice exam, you find yourself wondering if it made any difference. You’re tired, irritable, and your brain feels fuzzy.
Or have you ever struggled with certain confusing diagrams or with with long, complicated verbal directions? You find yourself re-reading that weird schematic with arrows going everywhere and text on another page, all with the hopes that you will figure out how to assemble an armoir, which I’m pretty sure is just a fancy French word for closet or cabinet. But that being said, The Lion, The Witch, and the Armoir sounds like a pretty good title to me.
In each case, you’re dealing with the challenges of cognitive load. I created the following sketch video as a brief explanation of Cognitive Load Theory:
Cognitive Load Theory builds on Atkinson and Shiffrin’s model from information processing theory. Here’s how it works.
We all experience incoming information through our sensory memory. Think of this as anything we see, touch, hear, smell, and taste in the moment. Sensory memory is instantaneous and much of it is forgotten.
But some of the information moves to working memory. Working memory is what we are thinking in the moment. Here, the information is either forgotten or moved into long-term memory through a process called encoding, where the brain categorizes the information.
We can help ensure information moves from working memory to long-term memory through a rehearsal process. If you’ve ever repeated a phone number over and over again to remember it, or you’ve paraphrased information or put events in a sequence, then you’ve engaged in a rehearsal process.
Later, your working memory can retrieve information back into working memory.
More recently, Dr. Barbara Oakley, co-author of Uncommon Sense Teaching has introduced an approach based on cognitive science to reduce cognitive load through retrieval practice.
The Bad News? PBL Can Cause Cognitive Overload
Last week, I worked with an independent school that focuses on students with Learning Differences. We had an open dialogue about the challenge of doing project-based learning. Students sometimes struggle to get started. It can feel overwhelming when a student looks at a 3-4 week project with multiple facets, ranging from a deep dive into research to a larger ideation process and a finished work that feels impossible at the outset. This is especially true with students who face challenges with executive function challenges. PBL requires students to plan, focus their attention, think spatially about time, and make constant modifications in the moment. If you look at the metacognition cycle, you can see where certain students with ADHD, for example, might have a hard time planning their approach, looking at the progress, and finding new strategies to achieve goals:
In other words, PBL requires an additional layer of cognitive load compared to traditional instruction. Students are not only thinking about the content but also thinking about the systems needed to manage a project. It’s no wonder so many students feel anxious and overwhelmed at the start of a project. Simply put, it’s a lot to think about.
This is especially true when the content is also new. Project-Based Learning differentiates itself from a culminating project in the core idea of learning new content through a project rather than doing a project after you’ve learned the content. For a quick primer on PBL, check out the video below:
Dr. Sweller, the founder of Cognitive Load Theory, points out that this notion of learning new content through a project can lead to cognitive overload. Students have to divide their attention between learning a new concept, practicing a new skill, and planning a project. In fact, Dr. Sweller debated PBL expert Henk G. Schmidt at a conference in 2016. For Sweller, PBL can create extraneous cognitive load where students must divide their attention between learning new content and attempting to learn how to do the project. In other words, the project distracts from the mastery of actual learning targets.
In other words, the problem with the “minimal guidance” of PBL is that it can be too minimal. Students who need scaffolds and supports don’t receive the help they need. Students who lack background knowledge fail to go deep enough in the content because they don’t have the prerequisite knowledge. Gavin Hays wrote an excellent blog post about how a well-structured PBL can actually reduce cognitive load when it is well-designed.
The Good News? We Can Design PBL Units to Reduce Cognitive Load
Project-based learning doesn’t have to lead to cognitive overload. If we design our projects with the right structures and supports, students can learn the content at a deeper level while also developing critical skills like collaboration, problem-solving, and project management.
As Martin (2016, p. 39) describes it, “These approaches are aimed at promoting learner independence while managing cognitive load appropriately, depending on the learner’s novice/expert status … If the instructor provides some guiding principles, prior information, signposts along the way, and scaffolds and assistance where needed, there is less burden on working memory.”
So, what does this look like? Here are a few ideas that I have implemented in my own classroom:
- Set the Tone Ahead of Time: John Hattie has pointed out that in doing project-based learning or inquiry-based learning, it helps to take a single class period and do a concept attainment lesson and front-load the vocabulary. Students will still learn the content through the project but this prep work ahead of time helps ensure they have the necessary background knowledge to begin the unit.
- Provide Supports and Scaffolds: I believe that every student deserves access to meaningful projects. However, we still need to provide scaffolds and supports. As educators, we can create tutorials and resources for all students and then allow them to determine when they need to use them. We’ll address this idea more in-depth in point #5 of this article.
- Use a Project Blueprint or Schema: While I don’t believe in using recipes for projects, I think there is a value in having an overall blueprint that students can follow. Students need to have a sense of where they are going and where they are along the way. We’ll explore this idea of a map with guideposts later in point number four of this article.
- Implement Direct Instruction When Necessary: We can build prior knowledge through direct instruction. It might involve an outline of core concepts or the front-loading of vocabulary. Often, it includes a concept attainment lesson. This sounds odd but even in a highly engaging project, students often need a break from the routine that sets in within a project. When engaging in creative work, it’s common to experience project fatigue. Even if they love the project, students will often get tired of doing research, working on prototyping, or revising their work. A highly engaging period of direct instruction can create a sense of mental space while also building background knowledge or helping with skill development.
- Take a Gradual Release Approach to Student Voice and Choice: Earlier this year, I wrote about how we can take a gradual release approach to student choice. In a PBL unit, you might take the first day to do a guided practice on research. Next, you’d move to a curation, where students select from a Google Document with links to multiple articles. Finally, they begin doing their own research. Notice how this approach moves from teacher-directed to student-directed in a way that reduces cognitive load.
All of these strategies help reduce cognitive load while still empowering students with voice and choice. We can also be intentional to incorporate key elements of Cognitive Load Theory into our PBL units.
4 Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Project-Based Learning
The following are four ways we can reduce cognitive load as we design PBL units.
1. Vary the Grouping for Individual Processing and Peer Interaction
During a traditional lesson, teachers can break up the tasks to reduce cognitive load. Teachers might incorporate a think-pair-share, where students summarize what they learned or answer a critical thinking question. Students might also jot down any question or write what they’re confused about before turning to a partner to share their insights. They might pause during direct instruction to fill out a graphic organizer like a table or a flow chart.
Instead of teaching a longer block of direct instruction, teachers can break the direct instruction into chunks where students practice an element of what they learned in order to move the information into long-term memory. When learning a new concept, students could add to a concept map, summarize a key idea in a one-minute summary, complete a Venn Diagram, or brainstorm examples. When learning a new skill, students can break tasks down into parts. Here students view a step in the process and practice it individually. Afterward, you move to the next step and practice that step. Then it continues for the remaining steps.
So, what does this look like in project-based learning? It might involve incorporating these individual and peer processing strategies into direct instruction. So, if you’re walking students through a particular technology skill in a documentary project or a 3D modeling skill for a STEM project, you can break these tasks down into steps with multiple opportunities for quick practice and peer feedback. However, you can also design PBL protocols that include both individual and peer processing tasks. Consider the following brainstorming protocol.
Students brainstorm alone first. It’s a private, judgement-free zone. Next, they combine their ideas as a group. From there, they narrow down ideas, mash-up ideas, and ultimately land on their final solution. By breaking the process into phases, students avoid cognitive overload. By including both individual and small group processing, both introverts and extroverts get the opportunity to process in a way that fits their identity.
These phases function as an opportunity to engage in encoding and retrieval. In a design thinking process, students would engage in research, followed by ideation. Here students are getting a chance to apply their prior knowledge that they learned in research into a solution that they develop on their own. This application process helps the information stick through a process of active learning. Note that active learning doesn’t mean students have to be moving around the whole time. The key is being mentally active. As Freeman (2014) puts it, “Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and / or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert.” In other words, the project itself is a form of active learning because it goes beyond passively listening to a lecture by encouraging students to apply the knowledge to a potential solution.
By breaking up tasks and including additional individual and peer processing opportunities, students get the opportunity to engage in rehearsal, encoding, and decoding. However, it can also help to break the larger project up into phases as well.
2. Break the Project Into Phases with Guide Posts
Have you ever assigned a three-week project and noticed that students spent the first three days goofing off? Tell a group of students that they’ll be filming a documentary and they might say, “I don’t even know where to start.” Give them a month to write a novel and they might say, “That’s way too much. I’m not sure I can.”
Students often hit cognitive overload at the start of a project because the structure and scope of the project provides too much extraneous cognitive load. This is why it helps to provide a road map for students with guideposts along the way. When we break projects up into phases, it feels more manageable. Consider the overlap of PBL and design thinking. Each phase of a design-centered project follows the phases or stages of the design thinking process:
Students also work harder as the move closer to the end of a phase and teachers can celebrate student progress along the way. According to Parkinson’s Law, a task will fill up to the allotted time you give it. If you have two weeks to do something that takes two days, you’ll spend the full two weeks. By breaking a project into phases, you avoid Parkinson’s Law and the prevent procrastination.
When students are working on longer tasks, we can help students break down a larger task into sub-tasks that they track with to-do list. You might also incorporate progress bars, numbers, or maps to show a sense of progression from point to point. Students who struggle with self-starting and self-managing can use their to do lists as a tool to help them stay on task.
While it helps to provide guide posts as students move through the phases of the project, you can help students manage the cognitive load by empowering them to own the project management process. Each group can have one project manager who helps break down the tasks and track the group’s progress along the way:
Here’s an example of a project management spreadsheet from a middle school project where students filmed a documentary. When using a spreadsheet, they can easily sort their tasks by date, people responsible, materials, etc. This option is less visual than other options. However, it allows for deeper analysis.
If you look at this spreadsheet, you can see that students have to negotiate roles, clarify tasks, and actively monitor and adjust their progress for a documentary project.
3. Engage in brain breaks.
In fitness, athletes often engage in interval training where they do intense, focused exercise followed by a period of short rest and then focused exercise again. Similarly, students will retain more information if they have focused learning followed by short bursts of rest called brain breaks where the brain can consolidate the information while they rest. Brain breaks might include a short walk, a fun game, a coordinated physical movement, or a quick divergent thinking challenge
In projects, this means making use of strategic breaks to prevent hitting project fatigue. Unlike a more traditional classroom activity, brain breaks are more individualized. If a student is “in the zone” and hitting a state of flow, they might not want to quit working on their project to do a game or a coordinated activity. However, they will often hit a place where they say, “I’m mentally done right now” or “I’m hitting writer’s block and I don’t know what to do.” In these moments, students might take a short brain break and leave their group. They could go for a walk, do some deep breathing exercises, or get up and stretch. I’ve seen teachers create stations with puzzles, coloring books, or whole class art projects where students can take a break during a project to zone out and rest before moving back to the project.
If you’re sensing a whole class lull in the collective energy level during a project, you might take a five minute break to do a divergent thinking challenge, a dance-off, or some other brain break to give the class a chance to rest their minds and move their bodies. The time wasted isn’t wasted at all. Students will emerge from the brain break more energized and ready work and the period of rest will help them generate more creative solutions when they move back to the project.
4. Use Structures, Scaffolds, and Protocols
Protocols can reduce cognitive load for students while still ensuring they have voice, choice, and agency in their learning. Instead of having to develop their own structures, students can follow the step-by-step process laid out in a protocol while still having voice and choice in their learning. Consider the 20-minute peer feedback protocol:
Students know exactly what to do in each phase of the process but they also engage in student-centered peer assessment. As a teacher, you might begin with one or two protocols in each phase of a project and then add new protocols with a second project. By the third project, students can select which protocol they want to use. For example, in doing research, students could select from options of graphic organizers or they could do sketch notes, organize research in a spreadsheet, or use note cards.
We can also reduce cognitive load by providing scaffolds and supports that any student can access. By making things like sentence stems, anchor charts, and other resources available to all students, you reduce the stigma while teaching students how to self-manage and self-advocate. My friend Mike Kaechele introduced me to the idea of workshops rather than small groups. Here, students sign up for targeted help in key skills or as a chance to review key concepts (research, content creation, review of content, etc.) All of these supports are universally accessible to all students. Students self-select the scaffolds they need.