Be Kind to Your Brain: Cognitive Load and Learning, By Emily Spicer


Date of Publication: 09 August 2019

We all know that ‘brain freeze’ feeling, don’t we? (And I don’t mean the brain freeze induced by eating an entire tub of cookie dough ice cream in five minutes on a Friday night.)


That feeling of the cogs not moving quite quickly enough, not-able-to process – ‘computer says no’. Sitting in a lecture theatre or classroom, or even in front of a documentary or TED talk, and knowing that you should understand, but your mind just… can’t… quite… get there…

It can feel terrifying. Debilitating. Overwhelming. Like you’re the only one in the room not getting it. And it certainly doesn’t help you learn; quite the opposite.

This ‘brain freeze’ is a real thing and it’s related to a concept called cognitive load.

A few weeks ago I was at the Festival of Education – a fantastic event bringing together some of the best minds in British (and international) education. One of the themes that linked a few of the sessions I attended was exactly this; intellectual brain freeze. Or more technically, reaching our brain’s limit for its cognitive load. It is at the heart of what makes education work (or not work) but often overlooked.

So, what is cognitive load? In layman’s terms it’s about how many things our brain can do at once. It is thought that our working memory is limited to remembering around 5-9 chunks of information at any one time (based on Baddeley’s Model of working memory). So, when we get more than 5-9 new pieces of information thrown at us in a lecture or talk or even textbook, that’s when our brain goes into ‘freeze’ mode and starts forgetting some of the information, limiting our ability to learn and understand.

Working memory and cognitive load are about new information our brain is dealing with at any one time, so there are strategies that we can use to reduce our cognitive load, avoiding that ‘brain freeze’ feeling and helping us to learn more effectively.

One is using our long-term memory. Rote learning and memorization isn’t very fashionable these days, but once we’ve memorised something – Daisy Christodoulou gave the example of learning our times tables in her talk at the Festival – it’s just there. We can draw on it whenever we need it and it doesn’t all to our cognitive load.

Have you ever wondered why language learning apps like DuoLingo make you repeat strange phrases like ‘the tortoise drinks the milk’ over and over? Cognitive load and working memory are behind this. As you repeat and commit verb conjugations to longer term memory, you no longer need to hold them in your working memory, and you free up ‘space’ to move on to more complex concepts.

Another thing that can help to ease cognitive load is the idea of ‘elaboration’. John Nichols explained in his talk at the Festival that context can help to tie together information, reducing the extra information the brain has to process.

Stories, anecdotes, real life examples, and case studies can all help to reduce cognitive load and enable us to learn and remember the information we need to learn. This is sometimes referred to as creating a ‘schema’; instead of teaching facts, a whole web of information is taught, with the facts at the centre. With this kind of teaching you might not even notice that you’re learning facts, your lesson might feel like it’s being ‘wasted’ with stories or anecdotes, but really you’re creating a rich network of contextual knowledge.

Brain freeze is real. It’s your brain’s way of saying ‘help!’ or ‘too much!’. But it’s not inevitable.

Here at Oxford Summer Courses we want you to be stretched, challenged, and pushed to your full potential but we know that being overwhelmed isn’t any good for anyone. That’s one of the reasons why our London courses are built around real-life scenarios and projects; by learning new concepts in context, they are easier to digest and you’re less likely to be overwhelmed.

And it’s why we’re paying special attention to how we develop our online courses, to make sure that your knowledge is built up little by little, so that it sticks.

As you learn with us, any brain freeze except the ice cream kind should be eliminated. But you can keep enjoying your cookie dough.

Want to give us your opinion on Emily’s latest discussion? TweetFacebook or Instagram us. We love to hear your views!

* Added note: We are very pleased to announce that our online courses have now launched. Please visit the Melio Education website to find out more!


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