How to promote information processing by students

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How to promote information processing by students

Friday, 19 August 2022 | Radhika Zahedi

The 5 strategies for better student engagement are - visuals, simple language, procedures, analogies, and organised content

Effective student engagement and classroom management are two important pedagogical strategies that teachers learn about in teacher education programmes. With technological advances, there are innumerable new ways of keeping students engaged.

By sticking to basics, five fundamental strategies are seen that reduce the sensory and cognitive loads on students to promote better processing of instructions and information. Any teacher can use these strategies to retain the attention of students.

According to the Information Processing Theory, during the learning experience in the classroom, first, students receive information through their senses by listening, seeing information visually on the screen or board or through the teachers’ gestures and demonstrations and when hands-on experiences are used through other senses.

Secondly, all this information is being processed mentally by students: What does this word mean? What should I do next? What should I remember? How do these items connect? Finally, when students have processed and made sense of the information, with repeated recall and practice, some of it may get stored in the long-term memory.

Thus, three aspects are key to student attention; students first receive information through their senses; if there is too much sensory information coming in at the same time, some of it may be lost because it is too much for the brain to attend to at the same time; students then process this information taken in through the senses using the short-term memory or working memory in their brains.

Students make sense of the information by decode it, make connections, decide what is important, etc. Here too, there is a limit to how much information can be processed at one time, which is called cognitive load. Both sensory and cognitive overload can have negative effects on students’ attention and engagement.

Therefore, teachers should recognise that sensory and cognitive overload is undesirable and should incorporate strategies that reduce the load on students.

Broadly, there could be five strategies that can reduce sensory and cognitive overload for students.

Visuals: Never underestimate the power of a good visual to anchor classroom instruction such as a digital presentation, a chart or well-structured board work. Visuals that organise the most important instructions or information can reduce cognitive load on the brain by making it available for students instead of requiring them to hold all of it in their minds, i.e., use their working memory. Reading about design principles beyond just the educational field - for example gestalt principles, colour, and sizing - can be very helpful in creating visual aids that promote student engagement.

Simple and Concise Language: Planning instructions and the specific language can reduce cognitive load for students. This ensures that student attention is focused on the learning instead of all of it being exhausted on trying to understand complicated instructions. Teachers should keep their sentences simple and concise when giving out instructions and avoid sharing too many instructions in one go. Thinking about which specific terms you will use beforehand and using the same terms consistently help reduce cognitive load.

Routines and procedures: Having regularly used routines or ‘classroom protocols’ in place of things like getting into groups, taking resources out, doing classwork, etc., is another teacher strategy for reducing cognitive load. Teachers can get students to understand what needs to be done just by using a single sentence or routine name. This means that students are listening to fewer instructions and using less cognitive load to understand the instructions leaving more for attending to the learning that is happening.

Analogies: Using analogies to explain new content aids information processing because students can attach the explanation to a model that they are familiar with instead of trying to make a sense of something that is completely new. Using analogies or even prior knowledge to make connections to something that students already know leads to greater storage of information in the brain with less cognitive load.

Organising content: The way we organise information can impact cognitive load and therefore engagement. Chunking content into logically arranged sections when presenting with clear titles is much better for cognitive processing than presenting it as one giant paragraph. This can be further extended by providing students with graphic organisers to help organise and process the content.

The strategies listed above are all focused on reducing sensory and cognitive load to aid attention and engagement. There are many other great teacher strategies that increase student attention by using emotional engagement strategies like using stories as a hook, asking questions to keep students actively engaged, providing opportunities for students to work with peers and aligning content to areas of interest for students.

(The author is school Director, The Green Acres Academy.)

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