Strategies for Lessening the Cognitive Load of Graduate Students Engaged in Major Writing Projects

Strategies for Lessening the Cognitive Load of Graduate Students Engaged in Major Writing Projects

Shirley Marie Matteson
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7267-2.ch013
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Academic writing projects require significant cognitive tasks that faculty and graduate students alike may struggle to complete. This chapter briefly explains how the brain processes information and the main premises of cognitive load theory. The author then examines the literature applying cognitive load theory to writing as a way to prepare readers for these demands. The chapter concludes with suggestions and strategies that writers can implement to reduce or manage cognitive load when engaged in writing tasks.
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Main Focus Of The Chapter

The focus of this chapter is to assist graduate students in developing scholarly dispositions and habits of mind, such as persistence and metacognition, to consistently move forward with writing projects. The chapter opens with a brief overview of how the brain processes information to provide a foundation to the chapter. I then look at the cognitive demands of the writing process, examine key findings gleaned from the review of the literature concerning the cognitive demands of writing, discuss the role of faculty in developing students’ writing skills and dispositions, and present strategies that reduce a writer’s cognitive load. The supplemental readings section of this chapter provides further resources.

An Overview of How the Brain Processes Information

Baddeley and others, through a series of studies published in the last half century, have described how the brain processes information (e.g., Baddeley, 1986, 2007, 2012; Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). Their work makes clear that learning is a complex process, during which the brain draws on two main types of memory – short-term and long-term. We use short-term memory, also referred to as working memory, for conscious actions and activities; it is the only type of memory that can be actively monitored and influenced (Kirschner, 2002). Although limited in duration, working memory allows us to reason and guides our decisions and behavior. However, we can only address about seven items of information at a time in working memory (e.g., Miller, 1956). Thus, working memory is very easily overloaded. This is especially possible when an individual is engaged in the major processes of writing such as organizing thoughts and making decisions as to what information should be included, translating ideas into sentences, and reflecting upon and revising drafts (Flower & Hayes, 1981). As they engage in these activities, novice writers may need assistance in developing dispositions such as persistence, time management, motivation, and confidence (Reid, 2017).

In contrast, long-term memory allows us to recall information for a much longer period. Sweller et al. (1998) noted that long-term memory relies on schemas to help categorize ideas. Because of schemas, long-term memory can include declarative memory or small, discrete pieces of information such as facts and events, as well as procedural memory or complex sets of tasks, interactions, and processes (Inglis, 2014). In fact, long-term memory is essential to the development of reasoning skills. Information that starts out in short-term memory can become scaffolded to long-term memory through schemas and other effective learning activities (Sweller et al., 1998).

An individual develops complex schemas by organizing and combining low level schemas (Sweller et al., 1998) which increases the learner’s ability to categorize and classify information, thus reducing cognitive load. Complex schemas have “two functions: the storage and organization of information in long-term memory and a reduction of working memory load” (Sweller et al., 1998, p. 256). Schema construction can also lead to automation of skills, which frees up one’s working memory. For example, a well-developed schema about inductive writing requires examining specific examples and then making a generalization based on that information.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Metacognitive Reflection: An activity a learner engages in to assess what works best for them in during learning and thinking processes.

Schema: Mental structures that an individual constructs to free up working memory, organize and process information, and automate cognitive processes.

Long-Term Memory: A type of memory that includes a vast deal of information that is recalled indefinitely. Long term memory includes declarative memory and discrete pieces of information like math facts. It allows us to remember procedures or complex tasks.

Instructional Design Principles: Evidenced-based principles that facilitate more effective learning of skills and concepts.

Cognitive Load Theory: A framework that explains how our minds process information.

Scaffolding: Types of support that can be given by the instructor that assists the learner in understanding concepts and skills.

Literature Crosswalk: A technological tool for recording information during the analysis and synthesis of empirical studies or other academic resources.

Andragogy: An adult learning theory that addresses both methods and practices that are learner centered.

Cognitive Load: The amount of working memory available to an individual at a specific time.

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