Cognitive Load Theory and Assessment

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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.

Micro writing: extended writing made easy!

The basic premise of micro writing is focused on that age old problem for teachers: a student’s ability to transfer subject knowledge from articulated utterances and thoughts into high quality extended writing against a specific criteria. The problem with this transference is it doesn’t always happen very well. Knowledge and/or opinions about a subject do not always translate into being able to write well about a topic in the exact form required by the task or assessment in hand. This problem is amplified when it comes to extended writing. Within one or two paragraphs, sometimes sentences, we could say ‘stop writing because I have no need to read two pages of this writing to tell you what you are doing wrong’. Just like with whole class marking, I’ve no need to give detailed feedback repeated ad nauseam on the whole essay. In fact, much of the time I don’t need an extended piece of writing unless it is a full dress rehearsal of the real thing. The moment you buy into that idea is the moment you can reduce your workload and increase the precision of the feedback.

As an example, let us look at a typical form, an essay in response to a posed question. For an essay, you would often drill the various components of the essay in micro writing sections which you would then spread out over a number of lessons broken down as follows:


A very brief plan for the essay (a handful of bullets at most)


Opening two paragraphs


Thematic or topic sections consisting of 2-3 paragraphs in 100-300 word blocks


Concluding paragraphs


Having broken the essay down into the four different types of writing, you can now drill these in micro writing.

At each stage of micro writing, you would use both types of modelling – modelling of process using live writing and articulation of the decision making that you are taking; and modelling of finished products with colour-coded section highlights.


Writing out essay plans – frequently they would be given a question out of the blue at some point in the lesson (Do Now, transition time, plenary) and then have to frame how they would have approached that question, the decisions they would make and outline a brief plan. We would then examine the decision making process of this and review the resultant plan. It’s very easy to mark these and comparative marking would do the job here as well. Visualisers can also be very helpful here. I think a good visualiser is worth its weight in gold for bringing a writer’s lens to written work and enabling everyone to have an insight into the decision making processes of a writer at work.


The opening two paragraphs – these are tricky things to write and both frame and foreshadow the rest of the writing. It’s a frequent writer’s block, this point of an essay, so drilling works well. It’s easy to read their opening paragraph and comment on in seconds. It’s not whether they do it effectively once that’s important. It’s whether they can do this effectively every time. Get them to reflect on their confidence to do this.


Two to three paragraphs on a topic or theme – these paragraphs need to cite evidence and synthesise it into the body of the writing. Here there will be a need for them to recall knowledge and to integrate it well. Once again, they need to be able to do this effectively always rather than just as a once off. In an essay, they will usually need to write a thematic chunk of writing two or three times in an extended piece. So there is no need to write three thematic chunks of the essay straight off. Get the art down first then scale this up. They need to be able to produce their 1-300 word chunk of writing at quality whatever the topic.


Lastly the conclusions. Again, they struggle with the writing of these and lose a lot of marks. Give them lots of practice of this. Write a conclusion to an essay you might have written to one of the practice questions, Write a conclusion to your peer’s essay. Write a new conclusion to one of your old essays. One paragraph conclusions are easy to mark. As always, they need to be good at concluding, not just be able to write one good conclusion.


At the end of this, you bring the pieces together in the full essay in timed conditions. Again, you would be using modelling and close textual analysis to enable the students to see how the different sections operated together – particularly with signposting and foreshadowing.

Students trained with micro writing will be able to immediately tell you which sections of the essay they did well and which they need to improve and direct you to the section they felt most troublesome and where they need the most feedback, making your formative feedback focused and high impact.

This approach works for any writing where they are taking knowledge and/or opinions and have to articulate that knowledge within composition. It’s also less labour intensive than making them write lots of poor copy. You want to intervene quite early on before they’ve written too much at the lower standard. This saves them time and it saves you time.

If you like the premise of micro writing then try it out on an individual level with other forms of extended writing. Collect in tiny pieces of micro writing from each of them to quickly mark formatively or use them as a resource in your teaching – visualisers, comparative marking, peer work, etc. It makes extended writing much more manageable for both students and teachers.

The Parnassian Phoenix and the GCSE Language Carpet

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If you recognise words in that headline, there’s a reason. It’s an intertextual reference to Edith Nesbit’s Phoenix and the Carpet combined with an obscure movement in reaction to Romanticism used as an adjective in a pejorative sense. It then takes the GCSE Language and suggests it is on the floor, on the carpet, knocked down by some unknown force which I am about to expound upon. Or perhaps the carpet is the new GCSE Language itself, exciting and new at first, but once the Phoenix makes it a magic carpet it starts to get frayed with the children constantly having adventures with and on it, wearing it out.

I am referring to the nonsensical GCSE Language exam revision that we are seeing in a pseudo norm referenced scramble to meet the criteria in a better way than around 55% of one’s national peers. Children learning ever more complex and obscure language devices to better impress the examiner. I remember studying Parnassianism at university, its weakness and how well that resonated with me as a reader. In a nutshell, the surface of the Parnassian text is so ornate, so layered with technical features, that it obscures the actual meaning the text is trying to convey to the reader due to an opaque and impenetrable layer of verbosity. Hopkins uses it to describe competent but uninspired poetry.

I’m not alone. The Fake Headteacher posted a tweet which provoked a nerve:

Fake Headteacher

This started a debate partly inspired by OFSTED’s conversion to machine learning. Is the future of English Language GCSE marking one where a machine is counting the techniques? Is this what good writing now looks like?

Sophie and Joe

@_MissieBee and @joenutt_author both raise really important points. In a modern world of fake news and bot authors, we are not developing original authors. We are in effect developing bot authors. Writers whose work can be read by bots with no recognition of thought and ideas. How we can get them to appreciate the new A02 phrase from AQA ‘effects of writer’s methods to create meanings’ over in GCSE Literature if we are not doing the same in GCSE Language?

Double or Quits: Triple Science and the Ethical Dilemma

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It is a straight forward choice isn’t it? If you intend to do sciences at A level and beyond you should be doing triple science: that holy trinity of Physics, Biology and Chemistry. If you don’t, you should do double science. Right? Well, there are some ethical points to consider.

If you want the best outcomes, grade 7-9s in your science subjects, then don’t forget there are only so many to go around give or take a couple of percent. Despite OFQUAL’s constant assurances that we have not returned to norm referencing, they are still adjusting the grade boundaries to ensure that results are broadly similar from year to year. Guess where all those top setters Grade 7-9s are? Those pupils benefitting from value added top set status,private coaching and determined aspirations are all in triple science! Looks like a blood bath for those top grades over there. If you are thinking of trying to manipulate your Progress 8 outcomes what might you put your pupils in for? Double Science of course! However, you should not be doing what’s best for the school should you – it should be what’s best for the pupil, right? And if that means cramming three subjects into the same amount of subject time as two subjects then so be it.

Yes – three subjects spread over the same time as two subjects. You might ask questions: what exactly are they learning in triple science that they are not learning in double science and is it really the best preparation for A level sciences and science in higher education? What about those who do double science but would be just as good for A level as the potential Year 8 (options are earlier every year) or year 9 pupils sitting there and thinking about their options. Would not exposure to some triple content  put you at an unfair advantage over your peer who completed double science? I hear the “I told you so. They are not up to A-Level” – well if they had a second bite of the cherry they may have been fine!

Speaking at the 2018 ASE conference, Amanda Spielman said some schools are wasting talent by putting the choice of triple science and A-level  in the hands of attainment and not aspirations. Curriculum or attainment – what should be the driver of choice?