Cognitivism is a learning theory that gives emphasis to the role of mental processes in the understanding and acquiring of new knowledge and language structures. The theory argues that learning occurs when new information is processed and stored in the memory, and that these processes can be understood by studying the mental processes involved. Understanding cognition is very important for effective instructional design in elearning platforms. This article will examine some of the main ideas and their implications in designing elearning platforms for language learners.

Cognitive theories of memory use different models to explain how information is stored and retrieved by the human brain. Since knowledge of the brain and cognition is incomplete, these theories only offer us a more generalized insight into how the brain functions. However, three models of how memory functions are extremely helpful:

  1. Long-term memory: Long-term memory is the part of the memory system that allows us to save information for a longer period of time. Long-term memories are normally formed through a process of consolidation, in which short-term memories are strengthened and encoded into a more permanent form. Schemata are thought to play an important role in long-term memory by allowing us to organize new information, comparing it with previous knowledge and experiences.
  2. Short-term memory: Short-term memory, also known as primary or immediate memory, is the part of the memory system that allows us to hold information in mind for a brief period of time. The duration of short-term memory is thought to be around 20 to 30 seconds. Anything above that can be classified as long-term memory. Short-term memories are thought to be stored in a temporary buffer in the brain, known as the phonological loop or the visuospatial sketchpad, which are responsible for our language and special brain functions.
  3. Working memory: Working memory is a form of short-term memory that allows us to store information for a very short period of time, and to carry out cognitive tasks. It is thought to have a duration which is at best only 10 – 15 seconds long. It is thought to consist of a central executive, which is responsible for attention and control.

According to schema theory, schemata are formed through experience and are activated automatically when we encounter new information that is related to them. For example, if you have a schema for a certain context, you will automatically expect to find things structured in a certain way. When new information is encountered, it is integrated into the existing schema, and the schema is modified accordingly. There are two scenarios:

  1. You encounter new information which is consistent with the existing schema, and you understand because it fits with existing knowledge.
  2. You encounter new information which is not consistent with an existing schema, and you do not understand it because it does not fit with anything you know.

The psychologist Richard Mayer focused on the role of cognition in multimedia learning and elearning. His dual-channel theory suggests that the human mind has two separate channels, one for verbal information and one for visual information. He argues that these channels have different capacities and that learners are able to process more information when both channels are used simultaneously. Mayer asserts that people learn better when they are presented with information in different channels. For example, he claims with his multimedia learning theory, that students can learn better if audio, or text is accompanied by visual images.

Mayer also warns in his cognitive load theory that learners can become overwhelmed by too much information, or by information that is presented in a confusing or poorly organized manner. For example, if text and audio is used in combination with visual stimulus. He outlines three sorts of cognitive load:

  1. Intrinsic load: This refers to the inherent complexity the material. If content is higher than the skill level of the student, they will experience intrinsic load.
  2. Extraneous load: This refers to the load imposed by the instructional design of the material. For example, if material is presented with decorative non-essential visuals, the extraneous cognitive load would be high. Mayer’s Coherence Principle states that learners learn better when extraneous information is minimized and when essential information is highlighted.
  3. Germane load: This refers to the processing load associated with schema construction, which is necessary for meaningful learning to occur. It is the load linked with integrating new information into existing schemata. If the instruction for the task is complex, and no existing schemata can be located, the Germane load will be very high.

This has implications in the design of effective elearning modules for language instruction. Content writers should:

  • reduce extraneous information like decorative images or items that are not pedagogically necessary, avoiding extraneous load
  • simplify materials so they are more concise, and accurately graded for the skill level, avoiding intrinsic load
  • provide visual images or diagrams to introduce context, and explain difficult concepts
  • chunk information into smaller, manageable pieces which are easier to digest
  • provide models and examples to scaffold difficult tasks for students
  • use instructions that are clear and concise, avoiding germane load
  • avoiding multitasking demands during instruction, such as asking learner to listen and read at the same time.
  • provide scaffolding which tapers off as the student becomes more independent

Mayer also outlined several idea key ideas:

  • The personalization principle posits the idea that students can learn better when material is personalized to their particular context. In addition, students learn better when they can select the order they learn, or can control the learning experience.
  • The segmentation principle states that students learn better when material is broken down into manageable chunks, and logically organized.
  • The signaling principle suggests that students can learn better when they are given clear meaningful clues to help them follow the organization of the material.
  • The pre-training principle states that learners learn better when they have prior knowledge of the material before they start learning.

Taking these principles into account content writers should:

  • pre-teach key terms and discuss concepts before the target language is introduced.
  • explain lesson goals effectively
  • use real-world examples to make abstract concepts concrete
  • highlight relevance by focusing on students functional needs
  • show how new information relates to previous knowledge
  • use different forms of highlighting to draw attention to important information and reduce the visual load on learners.
  • break down complex information by
    • avoiding long sentences
    • using bullet points
    • using headings
  • design shorter more manageable learning cycles within the average attention span

In conclusion, understanding the role of cognition in instructional design is crucial for developing effective e-learning materials. Edward Mayer’s principles of cognitive load and pre-teaching provide valuable insights into how instructional designers can support learners’ cognitive processes and optimize learning outcomes. By simplifying language, reducing extraneous information, and utilizing visual aids, content writers can help learners process information more efficiently and effectively. In addition, by chunking information into smaller pieces, providing worked examples, and using clear and concise instructions, content writers can help learners manage the cognitive load of their learning experience. By considering these principles in their work, designers and content writers can play a significant role in creating engaging and effective e-learning experiences that support learners’ cognitive processes and optimize learning outcomes.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 


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