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Recently, we did a CPD session on using Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) as a lens through which to view teaching and assessment in HEI. There’s scope for teaching practice to be improved in universities: use dual coding, stop reading out slides word for word and so forth. We also focused on summative assessment design. The difference between schools and HEI is we can design our own formal awarding assessments. To highlight an example of poor assessment design for our session we used the QTS Numeracy Skills Test. When you are trying to work out the question, someone starts reading the question out again, overloading your working memory. It’s an infuriating, but excellent example of poor assessment design through the lens of CLT.

In HEI, however, we can design out some of these poor assessments. We can also go further. We can look at whether the right assessment vehicle is being used for the intrinsic load being assessed, whether the assignment briefs contain too much extraneous or ambiguous information and other enhancements. In our session, we also acknowledged criticisms of CLT which are that it is a lab based concept: some extraneous load is normal in the field or discipline. This means whether you are learning or accessing schemas of knowledge, it’s not always possible in real life to remove extraneous load. When one of our trainee teachers is teaching, they have to deal with substantial extraneous distractions on their working memory whilst trying to access their schemas of knowledge in order to run the logistics of the lesson, perform in-action reflection and still teach. These can be unexpected answers or questions from a child, an observing SLT listening in on a learning walk or the mother of all extraneous loads – the rogue wasp. In all situations, they will be expected to demonstrate the Teachers’ Standards despite quite a lot of extraneous load (be reassured trainees, we do get better at managing it all). In seriousness though, if we are considering CLT then assessments have to do two things. First, you need germane laboratory style assessments to see if they can achieve the intrinsic load of the topic. For example, at Oxford University, they have increased the amount of time available for the mathematics paper to increase outcomes of all students. The intrinsic load was more important than the ability to cope with the extraneous load of a limited amount of time.  Secondly,  you need field or discipline based assessments to check they can access their schemas of knowledge as required despite the extraneous load provided by real life. As Mark Enser says in his blog, we do get better at this. So handling intrinsic and extraneous load together is something we can improve with practice and experience.

This brings us back to schools. Schools have focused a lot of their efforts on CLT as a means through which to raise the intrinsic load of the content being taught through germane teaching. So far, so good. But secondary schools are spending huge amounts of learning hours teaching towards GCSE assessments – sometimes from year 7 onwards despite the knowledge needed for these requiring just 120 guided learning hours per GCSE. Teachers in secondary school can look at their GCSE assessments through the lens of CLT and ask, critically: are these well designed? I recall the infamous GCSE English question, ‘Is George and Lennie’s dream in Of Mice and Men futile?’ The extraneous load of the unusual vocabulary choice in the question prevented many students from accessing their schema of knowledge about the text rendering the assessment of their knowledge inaccurate. Mathematics papers are notorious for containing higher reading ages than the students sitting them. If the assessment is the same intrinsic load, but starts to test working memory or things other than the intrinsic load of the assessment, is this poor design? Is it failing to test the schema of knowledge held by the student sitting the test? Well, only if it is not done deliberately.

The current GCSE papers have some sections which have a low extraneous load. They also have some sections which are so fiendish that teachers spend disproportionate time preparing students for it, and some sections which deliberately raise the extraneous load (e.g. the English unseen poetry section). If an assessment has a high extraneous load, then it should be because this is what happens in the discipline. If there is no need for a high extraneous load, then the assessment should be as germane as possible.

Those assessments which contain unnecessary extraneous loads also have higher ‘failure’ rates. This is where the assessment has not successfully accessed the schema of knowledge that the students have. They also raise the stress levels of teachers who are held accountable for these poor performances. How many times have you sent a student into an examination confident that they have the knowledge needed to do well only to be baffled when the grade comes back? Preparing students for assessments in a high stakes environment is fraught with difficulties. It can be as simple as not knowing one unusual word that prevents them accessing their schema of knowledge. You cannot control for a poor assessment in the same way we can in HEI. We can redesign the assessment to improve the ability of our students to access their schemas of knowledge and to demonstrate their knowledge effectively. We can also deliberately reproduce tasks from the discipline to better prepare them to work in the discipline. Schools have had this type of assessment (coursework and experiments) stripped from them because in a high stakes environment it is easy for an adult to assist students in managing the extraneous load in the assessment.

What then for schools? Well, currently, they still have scope to design their own assessments from KS1 up to KS3 (government NCTs notwithstanding). They don’t need to reproduce the poor assessment design of KS4 which eats up precious learning time and introduce it into years 7-9. They can also work on allowing them to work on subjects as a discipline. English students can work in the fast moving world of journalism, writing copy to speed; geographers can go out into the field and match the real world to their schemas of knowledge: there is scope for excellent curriculum design where assessment is designed for the students not the accountability system. There is a match between HEI lecturers and teachers for KS1-3 in terms of the ability to design curriculums and assessments.

I’m wary of calling for redesign of KS4-5 assessment because it does nothing but create more workload. However, there is a case for a fresh review of the assessments through the lens of CLT. Can we improve the ability of these assessments to enable students to access their schemas of knowledge and for teachers to spend more time teaching content and less time preparing students for the unnecessary extraneous loads of the poorly designed assessments? I’d be interested to hear from teachers who know their key stage or secondary subject assessments in fine detail and how they view the assessments through the lens of CLT.

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