Cognitive Load Theory in practice: completion tasks

Cognitive Load Theory is fast becoming one of the most important theories in education. It explains how our working memory has limited capacity, which means that if students are if students are presented with too much information, the learning process will slow down, because students will experience what’s known as cognitive overload.

There are several really useful applications of Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom. For example, you may already have read our blogs on The Redundancy Effect and The Split Attention Effect.

We’ve also spoken about worked examples, which make use of Cognitive Load Theory and a strategy called scaffolding (gradually removing support as students learn to do a certain task independently) and involve teachers doing most of the work.

But how can you bridge the level of difficulty as students become more confident, but aren’t quite able enough to do the task independently? That’s where completion tasks come in…


What are completion tasks?

While worked examples involve a step-by-step demonstration of how to solve a problem, with each step thoroughly explained, completion tasks are the next level up. They show a worked example of a concept, but one that is only partially completed, and which has gaps for students to fill in. These are a great way to advance the knowledge of students who are nearly experts in a particular topic, but still need a little bit of help and guidance.


Why do they help?

Similarly to worked examples, completion tasks reduce the burden of information in working memory by providing some information for students. As students become more familiar with a given topic, they may have transferred some topic information into their long-term memory, but not all of it. By providing some key information, completion tasks help students to avoid cognitive overload while they’re still learning, alongside testing their knowledge.

Teachers can use the gaps to direct students to areas they need to practice on and where they should focus their thinking. Some research suggests that completion tasks are more effective than worked examples, because they force students to more actively engage with the material.


Using completion tasks in the classroom

So, completion tasks can be very handy for advancing students’ knowledge. In fact, Rosenshine’s 8th Principle of Instruction is all about providing scaffolding, and gradually removing support to help students become successful learners. Here are a few practical tips for when using completion tasks with your students:

  • Encourage students to explain the worked example with their completed answers back to you, making use of the Protégé Effect;
  • Vary worked examples and completion tasks, and adjust them to suit different students; they may start with different levels of knowledge, or develop understanding of the topic at different rates, so it may be beneficial to vary the level of challenge.


Final Thoughts

Using completion tasks is a simple and easy to use strategy to manage cognitive load in your classroom, and help your students to learn effectively and efficiently. They’re particularly useful for advancing the learning of students who are gaining knowledge and skills in a particular topic, but can’t quite work on this independently yet.

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