Cognitive Load Theory

It was around 18 months ago that I first came across Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and shortly after, I blogged about its application in my practice. Recently CLT has gained a lot of traction on social media; helped by the fact that Dylan Wiliam cited it as the most important thing for teachers to know earlier this year:

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Oliver Caviglioli also recently created one of his fantastic illustrative summaries on Sweller’s book and this reignited the CLT flame for me. A few weeks ago I posted about CLT on the Society for Education and Training’s Blog, in an attempt to further promote what I and many others consider to be an essential learning theory. I thought I’d share it on my blog in an attempt to reach a few more practitioners, so here it is:

 

What is the one learning theory that I feel all teachers should be made aware of?

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) – Coined in 1988 by John Sweller, this theory posits that our working memory is only able to hold a small amount of information at any one time and that instructional methods should avoid overloading it in order to maximise learning (Sweller, 1988).

 

Why have I chosen this theory?

We’ve all been in learning sessions where the teacher has whizzed through the content, leaving us with little to remember. We’ve also been in those sessions where the content is so complex that we leave more confused than when we entered. CLT goes some way to explaining why this happens and what we, as teachers, can do to maximise the learning of individuals within our classrooms.
Building on the work of Baddeley and Hitch (1974), CLT views human cognitive architecture as the working memory and long term memory. Put simply, the working memory has a limited capacity and consists of multiple components that are responsible for directing attention and coordinating cognitive processes. Long term memory on the other hand, has an endless capacity for storage and works with working memory to retrieve information (Baddeley, 2003).

What can teachers do to reduce cognitive load?

  • Activate prior knowledge before sharing new information with students – Our long term memory is said to have a number of organised patterns of knowledge (known as schema). Each schema acts as a single item in working memory, so can be handled easier than having lots of new, isolated information. Through retrieving information from the long term memory via quizzes, visual aids and discussions, students can bring crucial information to working memory (see image 1) and assimilate new information to build upon what they already know (Baddeley, 2003). Activating prior knowledge is also supported in the work of Marzano, Gaddy and Dean (2000), who found a substantial improvement in achievement (0.59ES). Furthermore, retrieval practice has shown to strengthen our retention of the information (Wenger, Thompson and Bartling, 1980) – a win win!

 

  • Use visual and verbal information to present information to students – This has nothing to do with the infamous ‘learning styles’, rather empirical research suggests that our working memory has two points of entry (Chandler and Sweller, 1992). One accepts auditory information, whilst the other visual. If the auditory and visual information correspond to one another, then the burden on working memory is far less than using one pathway alone. Image 1 shows the effect of using one pathway to working memory, whereas image 2 shows the use of both. However, please note that if the text and visual information are not clearly integrated, then it could have adverse effects on learning (Chandler and Sweller, 1992).

 

  • Use worked examples and models to support learning – There are a wealth of studies that have shown the positive impact of using worked examples to enhance learning (Chandler and Sweller, 1991). According to Clark, Nguyen and Sweller (2006, p.190), ‘a worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem’. These steps provide learners with direction and support to create mental models of how to tackle a problem/task, or what ‘good’ looks like. Discovery or problem-based learning on the other hand can be burdensome to working memory due to learners having insufficient prior knowledge to draw upon to support their learning. Moreover, the vast amount of information they have to consider in completing work independently can result in a struggle to direct their attention. As learners develop a greater understanding of the topic, elements of the worked or modelled examples can be ‘faded’ (removed) to foster greater independence.

Worked Example

 

In summary, regardless of one’s philosophical predisposition, I argue that all teachers need to have an awareness of the potential benefits and limitations of the ways in which they present learning opportunities for learners. CLT and the associated empirical research provides us with an understanding of how we process, organise and store information most effectively and for this reason, all teachers should acquire a basic understanding of the premise.

References
Baddeley, A.D. (2003). Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4, p.829-839.

Baddeley, A.D. and Hitch, G. (1974). Working Memory. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 8, p.47-89.

Chandler, P. and Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive Load Theory and the Format of Instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 8 (4), p. 293-332.

Chandler, P. and Sweller, J. (1992). The split-attention effect as a factor in the design of instruction. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 62 (2), p.233–246.

Clark, R.C., Nguyen, F. and Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Marzano, R.J., Gaddy, B.B. and Dean, C. (2000). What works in classroom instruction. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive Load during Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12, p.257-285.

Wenger, S.K., Thompson, P. and Bartling, C.A. (1980). Recall facilitates subsequent recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6 (2), p.135-144.

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5 Diamonds

There are several blog posts knocking around at the minute regarding 5 things that individuals wish they’d have known when they started teaching (here and here). I like to follow the trend, so here are the five absolute diamonds that I wish I’d have known before I started teaching:

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1. If we don’t have an understanding of how information is received, processed and stored, then we don’t really understand learning.

It’s only in recent years with the ‘online cognitive science revolution’ that I’ve really acquired an understanding of how memory works and how to best support long term retention. You’d be a fool to ignore Cognitive Science. Whilst we can’t prove anything about memory, there’s a wealth of empirical research to support our understanding of it. Cognitive Load Theory is in vogue at the moment, but despite its popularity, unlike other fads, there is a compelling evidence base for its application. I actually wrote a blog post for the Society for Education and Training about CLT recently, which I shall share on here soon – stay tuned.

2. You’re not a bad teacher if you tell your learners stuff.

When I started teaching, everything had to be active. If you didn’t have active learning in your lessons, then you’d be chastised by observers and the like. Back then, being a sports lecturer, I thought active learning actually involved learners being ‘active’. For this reason, I would often get learners moving around the room doing star jumps (OK, I exaggerate, but why ruin a good story by telling the truth?). Anyway, my point here is that explicit instruction is actually really effective, particularly with novice learners. They need to know stuff and expecting them to figure it out for themselves is frankly absurd.

3. You really should assess learners at the start of every lesson

When I started teaching all the other teachers used to read objectives off before rolling into their lesson, so that’s what I did. Regardless of where learners started with prior knowledge, they were all doing this lesson at my pace. If I actually took the time to identify gaps in knowledge and diagnose misconceptions, I would have known where to focus my attention – I didn’t get this for a long time.

4. Being cool and relaxed is not a good way to manage 16 year olds.

I’ve written before about my erroneous ways with behaviour management. When learners arrive at college, they often don’t know what to expect. If we set the expectations high and be consistent with these, it will save a whole load of bother over the year. If you try to be the cool cat, there’s only one way that it’s going to end.

5. Doing group work is often more hassle than it’s worth.

I believe that working cooperatively is really important, after all, we are social creatures. The thing is, most group work is ineffective due to the fact that it doesn’t meet the fundamentals of effective cooperative learning (individual accountability and working towards a common goal), as identified by Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain. I’ve observed so many sessions where the group work has actually been one learner’s work, with 4+ other learners piggy backing. Effective group work is something that is carefully crafted and in all honesty, I prefer paired work as it addresses the key features of cooperative learning. A previous blog on group work explains my thoughts in greater detail.

 

So that is my 5, what are yours?

Why I do PowerPoint

There’s been a bit of a hoo-hah on Twitter today about PowerPoint (PPt). I think it began following this post from Jo Facer, which makes some fair comments. This led to a share of a previously written, more balanced argument by Robert Peal. I certainly agree with points in both, but not all. Here’s why I think we shouldn’t be so hasty in dismissing the use PPt:

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1. It provides a structure for lessons – note the term lessons. I often have a PPt that spans more than one lesson and based on the content that needs to be taught. I don’t see a problem with planning via PPt, so as long as the time spent is on thinking about the order/structure of content. Taking the time to think about the structure helps to organise my thoughts and enables me to move information around to suit the needs of the class. It’s as if I am putting my schema to paper (figuratively speaking). I could use other means to do this, but the PPt serves as a prompt during the session and means that the risk of learners missing out on crucial information is minimised.

2. The ‘visual’ argument – there’s no denying the vast body of research supporting Paivio’s Dual Coding Theory. I used to be guilty of putting reams of text on slides, which I proceeded to read to my learners and wondered why they never remembered anything. The issue was that whilst I read aloud and learners read the text (self talking), all information was entering working memory via the verbal pathway. Having developed a (basic) understanding of the theory, I began to change my approach, ensuring that more visuals were used to support explanations rather than text. Where visual information can’t be used, I keep text to a minimum, emphasising key points only. Having the visual means that the two pathways to working memory are being used, thus less of of burden for the learners (as shown below). PPt is a platform that enables me to quickly create or add visuals, meaning that all I have to concentrate on is explaining it clearly.

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3. Animations – I’m not talking the swirling and whirling of individual letters which take ages to create sentences. No, I’m talking animations to grab learners attention, to direct them to important components of visuals as they are being discussed. I have blogged about this here, but the Clark and Lyons research is a much more comprehensive read on this. Whilst there are many other ways to direct attention, PPt can be used really effectively to do so.


4. Everything in one place – Another benefit of PPt is that I can place my quiz, my content, links to reading, learner task instructions etc all in one single place. I can upload this to the Virtual Learning Environment and if learners wish to access anything, it’s all there for them. The fact that everything is in one place also helps keep my OCD in check.


5. Aesthetics – I must admit, I am guilty of putting too much time into the aesthetics of my PPts. I have got better at making the information less of a burden on the working memory; gone are the GIFs, the tenuously linked images, and text heavy slides. In spite of this, I still like to have clear, crisp, well designed slides. The fact that I put effort into making my resources look nice probably won’t get me any thanks from anyone, but with the care I place, I know that the spellings will be correct, the animations will support the learners at the right time and (I’m going to throw this out there) it’ll probably engage the learners a little more (by engage, I mean grab their attention). Whilst this probably makes no odds to the learning, it’s far better than my handwriting on a white board.


To summarise, bad PPts are bad. Similarly, bad teachers are bad; as are bad pens, bad textbooks and bad technology. There is another way and I strive to be at the opposite end of the continuum.

Initial Assessment – Start as you mean to go

It wasn’t until well into my teaching career that I realised I needed to do something more than read the objectives to my learners at the start of lessons. I used to plan my lessons in the way that I wanted to teach it and I would stick to the plan rigidly. In fact, one of my first PGCE observations commented on my ‘uncanny ability to stick to the scheduled timings of activities’. These days, I’m not so convinced that this is a strength…

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Sure, I’d get through my lessons and learners would probably make some progress with their understanding, but it wasn’t as effective as it might have been. After a few years of teaching, I had somewhat of a ‘light-bulb’ moment – it was only when I initially assessed that I could redress misconceptions quickly and truly appreciate where I needed to spend more time instructing/guiding learners. I felt so stupid…

 

I have been guilty of and witnessed, many poor attempts at initial assessment over the years. The open question to the whole group, where only the confident answer; the quizzes with easy questions, or with implausible incorrect answers. Neither of which provide the teacher with anything useful. There really is little point doing initial assessment unless the assessment is broad enough to include most of the learners and challenging enough to provide valid and reliable results (but not too challenging).

 

A few simple methods that I have found useful include:

  1. Multiple Choice Quiz (MCQ): A quick MCQ to recap previous learning and assess understanding of intended learning can be a really useful way to build a picture of what the class know and where any misconceptions lie. Sure, it has its draw backs and it can be difficult to design good questions (see previous blog), but a small number of well thought through questions, along with answers that make it difficult to discern the correct response, can be very useful. A little tip – make sure all learners respond at the same time. Give them the opportunity to think about the answers and countdown from 3 to reveal, using either mini white boards, fingers, or hold-up cards. 
  2. Teacher Questioning: As mentioned above. It is too easy to throw out questions and only a minority of learners answer. This tells us very little. A really useful way to check all learners and rectify misconceptions as you go is the ‘think, pair, square, share’ approach. Pose a question and ask everyone in the room to think about a response. Learners then pair to discuss and reach a consensus, before partnering with another pair to reach a final consensus. The teacher randomly targets learners to share their answers with the whole class. All participate and therefore, a few answers to the question can reveal a lot about the group.
  3. Self-Assessment Know: Want, Learn (KWL) – This is something I came across a few years ago and as a tool to monitor progress throughout the session and I find it really useful. At the start of the session, the teacher introduces the learning intentions. Learners then write down everything they know (K) about a topic in the first column and put any questions they want (W) answering in the second column. As this is happening, the teacher circulates the room, checking answers and questions. It provides learners with plenty of time to think about their current knowledge around the topic and also allows the teacher to probe and cajole learners to explore their understanding.
  4. Self-Assessment Audit: For me, this trumps the KWL in a sense that explicit success criteria is given and learners rate themselves against it. For example: I can name 5 long bones – yes or no? The teacher then gains a much quicker idea as to what learners know/can do, in order to determine where more of their instruction/guidance should be directed. 
  5. Visual Mapping Activities: Providing learners with advanced organisers with gaps to fill, can reveal alot. It can show whether they have an understanding of how concepts relate to one another and whether they know key facts about a subject. Get the learners to work independently or in pairs to complete a visual map of the topic and use this as a discussion point to explore understanding further. 

      All of these methods have limitations, but what I’m getting at with this post, is the fact that we need to find out what learners already know about something, rather than teaching blind. All methods provide the opportunity for retrieval practice (crucial for long term retention), moreover, activating learners’ prior knowledge is pivotal to learning anything new (Marzano). Any activities that do this, provides learners with a great starting point for improving long term memory. As I continue to state, it also means that the teacher has a clear idea as to where extra instruction/guidance is required. Therefore, start lessons as you mean to go on, through well planned and effective initial assessment.

      That hand shake

      I’m sure the vast majority of those working in education have witnessed the amazing skills of Mr White, the elementary school teacher from the US (see video here). He has a personalised handshake for every student across three of his classes. 

      Image source: https://goo.gl/images/kcUVbY

      He says that it helps create trust and build relationships with his learners. Whilst this isn’t something that I would do, I like this isolated example (and hope it stays isolated), and have always valued positive working relationships with learners. Indeed, Hattie found, in his meta meta analysis, a high effect on achievement (0.72) when teacher-student relationships have respect, trust and care. Furthermore, the whole notion of routine adds to the effect of this approach to supporting learning. I’m an advocate of behaviour management strategies which create positive habits, as can be seen in my previous post on owning your room.


      So all is good, right? We should encourage all teachers to do something similar in their practice? 


      Perhaps not. Firstly, relationships are important, but if you’re not doing the learning stuff right, then it doesn’t matter how much the kids like you. I argue that teachers should focus their attention on effective learning strategies.
       
      Secondly, I do wonder how much practice the 50+ different handshakes took the teacher and learners to master? Rather, how much this impeded the learning of the curriculum? Sure the whole idea may have just evolved over a period of months and the curriculum wasn’t impeded too much, but still, time is precious.
       
      Finally, at what point does being the fun, exciting, cool teacher lose the authority that may be required to manage the learner that is disruptive, or the learner that oversteps the teacher-student boundary? I really struggled with behaviour management when I started out teaching, all because I wanted to be the cool teacher that the students liked. Suffice to say that learner behaviour was pretty poor and I learnt an awful lot from this mistake. I had a job to do, and it wasn’t to be their mate.
       
      I don’t mean to rubbish an idea, because in this isolated case, it may work wonders, but remember folks, there are hundreds of thousands of teachers doing great things every day – great things without the ‘innovation’, or being the cool, hip teacher. They’re changing lives. 

      ResearchEdFE – Oliver and me

      Last week (03.12.16), Oliver and I delivered our ‘Choose Science, Not Myths’ presentation at the first ResearchEd devoted to Further Education.


      Below are the slides from the presentation and Oliver kindly put together the presentation notes in his blog here and here.

      The first part of the presentation explored a range of myths and while it is acknowledged that the jury is still out on some of these, it is important to remember that we were attempting to be contentious in order to spark debate. The second part of the presentation explored a range of effective learning strategies which are supported by both classroom experiments and cognitive science.


      10 tips to maximise learning support

      This is the first of what I hope will be many guest posts on my blog. It is written by my good friend and experienced Learning Support Assistant (LSA), Paul Warren.

       

      Rarely do teachers have the opportunity to explore how to work effectively with LSAs (or equivalents) in their classrooms. Both ITE and ongoing staff development sessions often fail to emphasise the importance of, and methods to enhance, the working relationship between teacher and LSA, resulting in ineffective utilisation of this key role (not in all cases, but many).  In this post, Paul highlights the pivotal role that LSAs play and he provides teachers with 10 great tips to maximise their use:

      Image source: http://www.civilserviceworld.com/frontline-learning-support-assistant
      ‘At some point during their career, many FE lecturers will have an opportunity to work alongside a Learning Support Assistant (LSA). Usually, but not exclusively, LSAs are tasked with providing 1:1 or small group support to students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities by offering learning strategies which help them to access the curriculum. Above all, however, the ultimate aim of most LSAs is to promote independent and autonomous working for the students that they support.

       

      The most effective LSAs are those which seek to work closely with the lecturer and the student to gradually reduce the need for support with a view to ultimately removing it altogether. This can create a range of possible issues – not least of which being that the LSA should expect to make themselves redundant – but the overall impetus is on helping the learner to maximise their potential to work independently.

       

      Of course, some learners will require support for the entirety of their time at college, but there is no harm in working with the expectation that all students will be able to work more independently before their course of study ends.

       

      Often lecturers may not have had any in-depth instruction or training regarding how best to work with LSAs. Finding information isn’t always easy. FE-specific literature or research relating to working with LSAs is scarce, but there are some schools-based studies (see the excellent Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) Project) or smaller scale FE research (see LSIS/Natspec’s highly valuable Enhancement of Learning Support) which may prove helpful. Excellence Gateway have also produced a really useful guide which can be used to gauge the impact of support staff via their Working With LSAs Audit Tool. In addition, a search on the Education and Training Foundation’s website will yield a range of resources for working with students with SEND who need support. Other additional useful and relevant sources include The 2010 Equality Act, the 2014 Children and Families Act – including Education, Health and Care Plans and The FELTAG report which, in part, highlighted the importance of providing assistive technology for FE students who need it. More current FE-specific research and general awareness is needed, however, which promotes the benefits and value of using LSAs to promote independent and autonomous working in Further Education.

       

      In the meantime, the following suggestions may be useful to lecturers to help kick-start a collaboration with LSAs with a view to reducing support and increasing learner independence:

      1. Work with LSAs to review current records of student needs – particularly pinpointing any known learning strategies which encourage the learner to work independently.
      2. Cultivate high expectations of the learner by immediately working with LSAs to try to identify what independence from support might ultimately look like. Use what you find in conjunction with your identification of student needs as a guide for each session and review regularly.
      3. Agree an absolute maximum level of support that LSAs can provide before an issue or difficulty must be referred directly to the class tutor. Be clear with LSAs (and the learner) that the LSA should never do the work for the student.
      4. Identify an early target for the learner to interact directly with the lecturer at least once during every session. Increase over time in order to reduce reliance on LSAs and gradually prepare the student for the time when the support is withdrawn.
      5. Produce a measurable method of identifying the impact of support. This could be a chart or record of work that records instances in which the student does a task independently or requires minimal LSA input. If possible, actively involve the student in evaluating their own need for help and use the data to plan future support.
      6. Encourage, praise and reward students when they work independently and use successes to promote future independent learning
      7. Work with the LSA and the student to produce a portfolio of independent working strategies which the learner can take with them to further study or employment.
      8. Liaise with teacher trainers, quality managers and senior leaders to share successes of promoting learner independence and reducing LSA support.
      9. Work with your Learning Support team to build a database of what works for learners in your subject and use it to inform future individual student support needs.
      10. Share ideas and successes via social media platform such as Blogs, Twitter or YouTube (remembering to respect individual student confidentiality and identity) and get in touch with other colleges to find out how they reduce support and promote learner independence.’

       

      So there we have it. Why not consider how you can develop each of the above points. Thanks go to Paul Warren @paulw_learn for this excellent post.

      Why use visuals?

      Along with the other half a dozen books I am working my way through, I am coming to the end of Ruth Clarke and Chopete Lyons’ book on Graphics for Learning. My fascination for this sort of thing is borne out of admiration for my good friend, Oliver Caviglioli’s work (if you haven’t seen this, you’re missing out). For information, in this post I will be using graphics and visuals synonymously.
       
      In their book, Clarke and Lyons spend a chapter (4) exploring how learning happens and how graphics can be effective in supporting this. Here is a graphic they use to show human cognitive architecture which aligns with Baddeley and Hitch’s Working Memory Model.

      badd-and-hitch

      They note that because of the importance of long term memory, those with little domain knowledge (novices) suffer when information is not presented effectively to them, as their working memory (WM) becomes overloaded. Using visuals with auditory information during instruction can work to reduce this burden on WM however, as two pathways into WM are distinctly separate – one visual and one auditory.
       

      Essentially, the working memory is like a bottle neck. If we pour too much into the bottle neck, much is lost… now imagine having two bottle necks into the same bottle, we’d keep much more information (yes a very simplistic way of looking at it). Better still, imagine if the same information went in both visually and auditory… this is what Paivio calls dual coding – a really useful approach to providing new information to learners.

      dual-coding
      Dual coding in action?
      Using graphics benefits learners in numerable ways, not just the above. Here I will discuss some of the reasons outlined by Clarke and Lyons:

      1. Graphics help to direct attention

      They suggest that almost any ‘visual will attract attention’. Attention is key to learning anything new, but in a typical classroom, in addition to the information being taught, there are other stimuli which can distract learners. Having a visual for learners can provide the focus of attention, however, they should be used with caution:

      • The visual should not be irrelevant to what information is being shared (random clip art images should be avoided).
      • The visual, if complex, should also have signals to direct attention to component parts such as small circles or arrows.
      • Simple visuals are better for more novice learners.

       

      2. Graphics help to activate prior knowledge

      Learners ‘know stuff’ already, but it will be in the abyss of long term memory and it is important for us to draw it (no pun intended) into the working memory in order to link new knowledge. Clarke and Lyons tell us that ‘a visual provided before the main lesson content can help to build an effective base knowledge structure. This skeleton structure provides a frame on which the learner can attach additional lesson details.’ This is corroborated by Marzano’s work on classroom based instruction, whereby non-linguistic teaching methods such as graphic organisers have a startling effect on achievement (0.75 Ave. ES)

      In spite of this, a graphic that activates inappropriate prior knowledge will depress learning according to Clarke and Lyons, so there is a need to ensure clarity and order with the graphic that is used.

       

      3. Graphics help to manage mental load

      ‘Since working memory is the site of active processing, good instructional materials must preserve its limited capacity for learning.’ I have blogged before about the use of storyboards to assist with delivery of new information. This is one example of how to manage the mental load. Simple visuals (line drawings) are said to be better than more complex visuals. For instance, when drawing the heart, for novice learners it would help to draw a simple boxed line drawing as opposed to a cross section of the heart, which is often seen. As learners become more competent with the content, visuals can increase in complexity.

       

      4. Graphics help to build mental models

      Where Clarke and Lyons refer to mental models, they basically mean ‘schema’, or patterns of knowledge and skills in the long term memory. The more expert one becomes, the more complex and organised our mental models become. We learn by linking new information to existing mental models and in using graphics, abstract information can be made more clear with how new information links to current knowledge.

       

      5. Graphics help with transfer

      Clarke and Lyons argue that with all the knowledge in the world, unless we can retrieve it and bring it back to WM, we won’t be able to transfer it to alternative situations. They distinguish between near and far-transfer in their book, both requiring different types of graphic to maximise the type of transfer.

      Near-transfer is the type of thing we will do more frequently, like a following a process for sending an email – the difference being that there will be different content to include.

       

      Far-transfer requires the use of concrete and abstract examples – Clarke and Lyons inform us that in developing far-transfer, ‘graphic illustrations that build mental models, use varied context, transition from concrete to abstract, and provide a work context for immersive learning environments’. I feel that this warrants an entirely separate blog post, so will look at this further in the new year.

       

      6. Graphics can optimise motivation

      Clarke and Lyons highlight motivation as the key to effective learning and that visuals can play a huge role in motivating learners. They recommend using visuals that help learners see the relevance and value in the learning and trigger interest for learners. It is important to note that while visuals can interest learners in the learning material, the ‘edutainment’ that often comes with instruction can actually impede learning (guilty of this your honour). So try to avoid eye candy and instead focus on relevant graphics.

      In addition to this, a recent post by Greg Ashman caught my eye, arguing that by reducing cognitive load, we increase the motivation of our learners. If we look back at the purpose of using the visual pathway to WM – to reduce load, then we find additional benefits to using graphics.

       

      So that’s it, six reasons why we should consider using more visuals in our instruction. If you do use them though, please heed the advice of Clarke and Lyons.

       

      Do we need to know about learning theory or not?

      Yes… well kind of…

      Learning theory provides us with a why for the what. When we teach learners, we expect them to know the why for the what, so why wouldn’t we expect the same of teachers?

      learning-theory
      Link to image source
      The problem that many practitioners face is that they probably haven’t studied learning theory since their teacher training, and I’m certain that in some cases, much of that was ‘guff’ (Gardners MI, learning styles, learning pyramids etc etc). Much of the theory that I was taught has been debunked and I don’t even know if what I was doing as a result of learning the theory was particularly useful or not. Aside from this, there are so many theories (see above image) that it becomes difficult to determine what is useful to know and what isn’t.

       

      For this reason, I recommend that the minimum that all teachers should be armed with is some objective evidence of how students learn best. I have previously written about the different types of evidence you might use to determine how students learn (here). If we know that the reason we are doing something in our classroom is because there is some objective evidence to show that it works, then we should have confidence that we are likely doing the best for our learners. If on the other hand, there is no objective evidence, or evidence that refutes something we are doing, then perhaps we need to consider what we can do better for our learners (I’m not saying that the more subjective evidence is wrong, but there might be something we can do that will be more effective). So where can we get the more objective stuff?

       

      Below you will find a range of the more objective evidence that I use. I have summarised each and given a subjective rating out of 5. My rating is based on the security of evidence and how useful it is for a classroom practitioner.

       

      Article/ Research Summary My Rating
      Dunlosky et al (2013): What works, what doesn’t

       

      This document ranks some of the more effective study strategies from cognitive and educational psychology, specifically with HE learners. It’s a very accessible and a go-to document. *****
      Rosenshine (2012): Principles of Instruction

       

      An overview of 10 key principles of instruction, informed by research on master teachers and cognitive science. Gives the reader classroom application and the research base. ****
      Deans for Impact (2015): The Science of Learning

       

      Based on the research of cognitive scientists, this is another go-to article for my trainees. The content is clear and accessible with great classroom application. Informed by *****
      The Learning Scientists (2016):

      Six Strategies for Effective Learning

       

      Six of the most effective learning strategies from cognitive science are simplified and visualised. Highly accessible and available in a variety of formats for teachers and learners. *****
      Hattie (2012):

      Visible Learning

       

      This isn’t a link to the book, but a pretty good review. There is a wealth of research informed strategies covered in the book. Despite a lot of criticism for his methods, this is a good starting point for understanding what is typically more effective in the classroom. ***
      Marzano et al (2001): Classroom Instruction that Works

       

      This is a link to the complete book. The work summarises a wealth of classroom based research. 9 research-based strategies are explored with a thorough coverage of the research and a range of applications for the classroom. A big read, but great book. ***
      Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit

       

      This toolkit for practitioners summarises classroom based research into 3 key elements – cost, research security and months impact on achievement. Some of the research methods used by the foundation have been scrutinised, but certainly worth exploring as a starting point. **
      Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education (2015):

      Top 20 Principles from Psychology for PreK-12 Teaching and Learning

      This offers twenty key principles for teaching and learning based on psychology. It is accessible, but a huge document. Each principle is explained with relevance to teaching. *****

       

      Should we spend more time designing multiple choice questions? a) Yes b) No

      I am the first to admit that when I plan my lesson resources, I spend far too long making them aesthetically pleasing. Of course, I try to ensure that my instructional design is efficient and the content is challenging, but I enjoy making the resources look great too. There are probably many others, just like me.

       

      In this post I’d like to look at formative assessment design, specifically multiple choice questions (MCQs), and I will argue why I need to spend more time focussing on designing these and probably less time on how ‘funky’ my resources look.

      knowing_online_assessment

      Let me explain the benefits* of multiple choice questions before I go on to how you might approach the design of them:

      1. The ‘testing effect’ – Frequent quizzing has shown to enhance later exam performance (McDermott et al, 2014) as learners are provided with the opportunity of retrieval practice. There is, however, research that indicates that MCQs might not be as effective for retrieval compared to short answer response questions due to the answer being available, thus learners are not required to think as hard (Kang, McDermott and Roediger, 2007).
      2. Identifying gaps in knowledge – We can quite reliably use multiple choice tests to identify the gaps learners have in their knowledge. We can use this information to close the gaps in knowledge for groups or individuals. Whilst there is the argument for guessing answers, if we increase the number of plausible incorrect answers and the number of questions to respond to, we do increase reliability. This is illustrated in the work of Burton et al (1991):
      3. 00001Furthermore, when we ask questions to learners in class, each learner is usually asked something completely different and therefore, this results in completely different answers. Whilst I think questioning is useful, it isn’t a reliable measure of learner understanding, plus we only know the response of that one learner we ask, not the others.
      4. They can be used as a diagnostic tool – If the questions are written as such that we can determine why the learner is selecting a particular answer, then we can start to diagnose problems with their cognitive processing (Wylie and Wiliam, 2006). Wiliam advocates using a small number of these questions at a hinge point in the session, whereas I’d argue that they’re useful at any point. The problem is tha they are quite challenging and time-consuming to create, as Harry Fletcher-Wood and others have found. I’m still developing my thinking on these, but here is a video by Wiliam which explains it in a little more detail – “Kids cannot get it right for the wrong reason”.
      5. Quick, visible responses  – When the learners answer these questions, we need to be able to see the responses of all individuals. This can be done quickly and with ease through the use of mini whiteboards or holding fingers up. The teacher can view the whole class in a few seconds and determine whether they can move on, or revisit information accordingly. The wealth of formative assessment online tools also allow for MCQs to be administered to all, and automated marking can generate clear analytics quickly. I personally like Google Forms, but there are many other online tools offering similar features.

       

      Designing the Stem

      In designing effective MCQ’s I have found several research articles and documents (1,2,3,4). Each of which offer similar advice when writing questions and answers. Here are some of the key things to consider when writing the stem:

      1. The stem should be meaningful by itself and should include the main idea.

      Basically, this means that the main thing you’re trying to find out about should be in the stem. E.g. What chamber does deoxygenated blood enter in the heart? (I am trying to find out if they know about chambers of the heart).

       

      1. The stem should not contain irrelevant material.

      This will just serve to confuse learners and this can cause more harm than good. Learners may create ‘false knowledge’ if the information is not relevant.

       

      1. Avoid a negatively written stem.

      Where negatives are used in the stem, this can make the question easier according to Harasym, Price, Brant, Violato, and Lorscheider (1992). Furthermore, negatives can cause ambiguity in what is being asked and just because a learner knows an incorrect answer, this doesn’t mean that they know the correct one. Here’s an example by Burton et al (1991).

      Which of the following is not true of George Washington?

      1. He served only two terms as president.
      2. He was an experienced military officer before the Revolutionary War.
      3. He was born in 1732.
      4. He was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence?

       

      Designing the Answers

      In a meta analysis of MCQ research, Rodriguez (2005) informs us that it is not the number of distractors but the quality of distractors that are important when designing answers for MCQs. It was found that writing more than 2 distractors can become challenging and is not significantly more effective that having more, so having A-C is fine if you are struggling to produce A-D. The key elements that should be addressed when writing stem answers are:

      1. All alternatives should be plausible.

      Essentially, each incorrect answer should be plausible. In the example below, there is clearly one implausible response:

      In what year was Winston Churchill first chosen as Prime Minister?

      1. 1700
      2. 1940
      3. 1941
      4. 1942

       

      1. Alternatives should be stated clearly and concisely.

      Try to avoid unnecessary ‘waffle’, so that in interpreting the question, the cognitive burden is reduced.

       

      1. Alternatives should be mutually exclusive.

      There should not be more than one answer that can be defended as a correct response by using correct reasoning. An example by Burton et al (1991) shows two possible correct answers:

      How long does an annual plant generally live?

      *a. It dies after the first year.

      1. It lives for many years.
      2. It lives for more than one year.

      *d. It needs to be replanted each year.

       

      1. Alternatives should be free from clues about which response is correct.

      Avoid including a word from the stem in the answers. This can provide a clue to the answer, and for some, they may think of it as a trick question, thus go with an alternative answer. For example:

      What muscle is the agonist on a bicep curl?

      1. Bicep
      2. Deltoid
      3. Hamstring
      4. Tricep

       

      1. The alternatives “all of the above” and “none of the above” should not be used.

      Speaks for itself as more often than not, this option is the correct answer in MCQs.

       

      1. The alternatives should be presented in a logical order.

      The best approach suggested is numerical or alphabetical to avoid any clues as to which is the correct response. When working with City and Guilds on a project a few years ago, I was also advised to avoid having the starting letters of each answer show an obviously different response. For example, in the first set of answers, Hungary clearly stands out and this might lead learners to respond with that, whereas in the second set of responses, each starting letter is different and leaves no clues:

      1. Germany                 a. Germany
      2. Ghana                      b. Hungary
      3. Greenland               c. Poland
      4. Hungary                   d. Russia

      Summary

      As can be seen, writing MCQs isn’t something you can throw together 5 minutes before a lesson. To make them effective, it requires time and a number of elements need to be addressed. I’d suggest working with your colleagues to build a bank of questions.

       

      *I have stumbled across a couple of problems with MCQs which are worth examining. @surrealyno has written a short piece on the disadvantages of MCQ’s and Roediger and Marsh (2005) also found that using MCQs could lead to ‘false knowledge’ in some students, where they believe an incorrect answer to be true. With due consideration of the abovementioned points, it certainly will mitigate against some of these concerns and I’d argue that the advantages of using MCQs outweighs the disadvantages, particularly compared to alternative methods of assessment.