Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

This post is based on emails I exchanged with one of my colleagues last week. He gave me permission to turn them into a blogpost – thank you!

The lesson was revision of superlatives with elementary 10-13 year olds. They had 8 prompts like this: young / person / my family. For each prompt, students needed to individually create a statement, some true, some false. This was very challenging for most of the students in the group, despite the teacher demonstrating it to them first. Only two students out of eight were able to complete the task as it was originally planned. The others ended up writing only true sentences. The teacher emailed me afterwards to find out how to do the task differently next time. The rest of the post is a slightly edited version of my reply (I’m happy to be corrected on my understanding of cognitive load!)

Especially at this level, it’s important to think about the cognitive load you’re putting onto students, and how many levels they need to complete the task on at the same time.

“Cognitive load” relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. Sweller said that, since working memory has a limited capacity, instructional methods should avoid overloading it with additional activities that don’t directly contribute to learning.

Mind Tools – Cognitive Load Theory (accessed 5th April 2021)

For example, in this task students need to:

  1. work out what the prompts are/mean (i.e. what does the teacher want from me)
  2. create a superlative sentence (a new grammar structure they’ve only just encountered)
  3. decide whether to make it true or false
  4. add the information – either true or false

…so they’re dealing with the task on 4 different levels. It’s an achievable task if you break up each of those levels so students are attacking them separately. This helps students by staging the task for them carefully, enabling them to successfully complete something quite complicated. You can think of this as providing scaffolding or a staircase to help the students reach the high point of the final goal. For example:

  1. Have 2 or 3 examples completed already for reference, refer them to the references to show how the prompt turns into the superlative
  2. Do 1 or 2 of them in the chat box so all of them complete it, then they complete all of them as stems only + feedback
  3. Write T or F next to each piece of information with parameters e.g. 3 x T, 3 x F – check afterwards – have you got three T? three F?
  4. Add the true/false information depending on what letter they wrote before

Alternatively you can remove/change some of the levels – this reduces cognitive load and takes less time in the lesson. You can think of this as students joining the staircase at a higher point, so they’re already closer to the final goal. Any of the levels can be removed:

  1. Don’t use the prompts – make it free choice with a sentence stem e.g. The _______ in my ________ is….
    make it a gapfill e.g. The _______ (tall) person in my family is… (requires careful instruction checking so they don’t fill in the end of the sentence yet!)
  2. Supply the completed stem for them to just understand and complete with information (shift from a form focus to a purely meaning focus, but you don’t know if they actually understood how to form the grammar – you can get around this by asking them to write 2-3 of their own examples at the end)
  3. and 4. Do what you did in the lesson and take away the true/false element.
Image by Vicky Loras from ELTpics, under a Creative Commons 2.0 license

Mind Tools theorises this process like this:

Reduce the Problem Space

The “problem space” is the gap between the current situation and the desired goal. If this is too large, people’s working memory becomes overloaded.

This often happens with complex problems, where the learner needs to work backwards from the goal to the present state. Doing this requires him to hold a lot of information in his working memory at once. Focusing on the goal also takes attention away from the information being learned, which makes learning less effective.

A better approach is to break the problem down into parts. This reduces the problem space and lightens the cognitive load, making learning more effective.

Other methods of reducing the problem space include providing worked examples and presenting problems with partial solutions for the learner to complete. These approaches are particularly useful, because they demonstrate strong problem-solving strategies in practice.

Mind Tools – Cognitive Load Theory (accessed 5th April 2021)

If you’re interested in reading more about how to break down a task and provide scaffolding to help learners complete it, take a look at my idea for a scaffolding continuum.

Comments on: "Breaking down an activity into stages" (1)

  1. […] 10 questions you can ask yourself to improve your activity set-up. I have a post about how to break an activity down into smaller stages. Here is a 3-minute video of instructions for making a mini book by Jane-Maria Harding da Rosa […]

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