Cognitive Overload

5 Ways to Overcome Cognitive Overload

Cognitive overload happens to students and teachers. Often looking like ADHD, cognitive overload can happen for a variety of reasons including challenges to your working memory. Todd Finley some ways to help your students and yourself when you struggle with cognitive overload.

Cognitive Overload

Used with permission granted by Todd Finley

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5 Ways to Overcome Cognitive Overload

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Date: May 25, 2018

Vicki: Cognitive overload. What is it, and how do we work with it in our students and in ourselves?

Today thought leader Todd Finley is going to help us understand this.

I know Todd from writing also Edutopia. He writes some of my favorite pieces.

So Todd, I thank you for being with us today, and what is cognitive overload?

Todd: Thank you, Vicki, I’m delighted to be here. Cognitive overload comes from experimental research that shows how too much information, too much stress, too much complexity taxes working memory.

todd finley cognitive overload (1)

Working memory is super important to understand. It’s a mental sticky-note or scratchpad that we use to keep track of info until we use it that info in some ways.

As we are recalling directions or writing a sentence or doing a math problem, we need working memory.

An example of this might be… if I say “Put those numbers in order: 56, 33, 22, 28.”

If a child is experiencing cognitive overload, or they just have poor written memory, that child might not remember the numbers, or they might not even remember what to do with them.

Vicki: Yeah, it’s kind of like when you reach that limit. Sometimes you’ll just do a brain dump and you just don’t remember a thing and you get confused, don’t you?

Todd: My wife thinks she has a problem with it, but I just say, “Compare this, what you’re doing now as a teacher, and how much complexity there is and what you’re doing, compared to what you were doing when you were 22, and there’s no comparison.” It’s not senile dementia, it’s just that teachers are doing far more now than ever before.

Vicki: Yes, we are.

So what are some of the ways to reduce cognitive overload when we realize that students are overloading?

What are some of the ways to reduce cognitive overload?

I’ve heard teachers say, “I just gave you eight directions and how come you don’t remember any of them?” Well, that might be cognitive overload.

How do we deal with this and how do we help kids?

Todd: The first thing is to notice when it’s occurring.

Sometimes you’ll have a parent where the directions go in one ear and out the other ear, and they think the kid is not paying attention, but that can actually be a sign of cognitive overload or poor working memory, not an attention issue.

What are some physical indicators of cognitive overload?

One of my favorite look-fors for identifying cognitive overload is when you have a kid who’s… you ask them a question, and their eyes start twitching back and forth rapidly. That’s a sign of real stress on working memory.

You’ll actually see kids naturally do something useful, which is sometimes they’ll cover their eyes to kind of shield their eyes and look down. The reason they’re doing that is because, for some reason, human beings, when they’re looking at the face of another human being, that takes up a whole lot of bandwidth in the brain. By looking down, they’re trying to access more RAM in their brain in order to solve the problem.

What can we do to help them?

That’s an indication you need to be doing something to simplify the information or chunk the information. There’s some general things you can do for cognitive overload.

The most famous one is scaffolding, but I don’t really like the word “scaffolding,” because I think when teachers hear that term, they think of building something, when actually scaffolding is really about simplifying or narrowing things in the same way that if you have a trail, that minimizes the choices for hikers so that they can summit more successfully.

Simplify or chunk the information and narrow the choices

Another example of limiting choices is that a lot of parents will ask their kids, “What did you do today?” That’s an overwhelming question for kids, like, “What do you mean? What did I eat, what happened during this time of the day?”

You can play the high-low game, which is what we did with our family, the high point and the low point of the day. That narrows the choices, but it also allows them to focus and be more successful in the task.

There’s a few other ideas, do you want me to continue?

Vicki: Yeah! I do want to go back and just ask you one more question, though. You said their eyes twitch back and forth. Did you mean look back and forth, like horizontally typically? Or just seeing their eyes move rapidly?

Todd: Yes. It’s usually left and right rapidly.

Vicki: Okay.

Todd: Sometimes I’ve seen that with a mix of sort of up and down, you can sort of see them accessing different quadrants, but mostly it’s left and right. Sometimes you’ll see pupil dilation, with that, too, but I’m never that close to a student to actually see that.

Vicki: Wow. Okay, because that explains a lot to me. I’ve seen that before and didn’t really understand it. I’m actually thinking about a student I saw with it yesterday, and I’m going, “Oh my goodness.” So, we’ve got scaffolding — or really simplifying, minimize choices, noticing what happens, what else can we do?

Todd: Another thing that you can do is to maintain what I call a “simple learning cockpit”. Aerospace companies now realize that cockpits with all these switches is completely visually overwhelming for pilots and can create cognitive overload in stressful situations. They’re trying to simplify those cockpits now.

Provide time for organizing

In the same way, kids need time to organize their learning cockpits, their desks or notebooks and pencils and papers they actually need time in straightening things, and that’s really important for reducing cognitive overload.

Vicki: Oh my goodness! And so many times we don’t give kids an opportunity to just kind of get themselves organized. I’ve seen kids come in, “Okay, I just need a minute to get my head on straight.” That’s what they’re doing, huh?

Todd: Absolutely. I think there’s…. Teachers are feeling pressure to hurry students through the day, hurrying them into line I think that’s because they feel pressure to cram more into the day because there’s so much pressure on teachers. But they actually need to give room for students to process things and just step back a little bit and then you’ll have less friction in the class between the kids as well.

Vicki: Wow. What else can we do?

Todd: Well, another thing is to provide time for reflection. I had a student this year, and I was talking about some principle. I was about to go to the next thing and she said, “You know, it’d be great if you gave us time to talk about how this applied to our lives.”

And I thought, “Okay, this is Captain Obvious, like, of course.”

Do we realize that there is no learning without reflection. If we are giving students time to reflect, what happens then is that tenuous knowledge that they have in working memory, the neural pathways become strengthened and they’re able to convert short-term information into long-term memory. So reflection is really important.

Provide time for reflection

Vicki: Absolutely. What have you learned, what can you do, and even when you make a mistake, what have you learned so that you can improve? Whether it’s a mistake learning or a decision or that sort of thing. Such great ideas. Okay, what’s next, Todd?

Todd: Another thing. This is an idea from Sheila Valencia. She’s a University of Washington expert in literacy. She says one of the problems that kids have when they are reading textbooks… Textbooks, particularly in secondary, are super-complex. Their writing is complex, and so is the content sometimes.

And so, if students are like me when I was in high school, I would read every single sentence like they were equally important, and they aren’t. Students need some clues about what’s important and what’s not important. Saying things like, “Tonight when you’re reading, really pay attention to this part because I’m going to ask you about this the next time that we meet.”

Providing some road signs and indications of what’s important and what’s useful, and teachers can do this in other ways too. They can enunciate certain things that are really important, or they can use repetition. All of those are really good ways of reducing cognitive overload.

Provide indications of what’s important

Vicki: Yeah, and frontloading the vocabulary, that’s really important. That’s when I use a lot, that’s how they know these are the important concepts we’re learning.

Todd: Yeah. That’s really critical.

Vicki: Excellent. What else were you going to say?

Todd: I guess teachers are facing cognitive overload right now.

Vicki: (laughs)

Todd: The indications of that are if you start feeling fuzzy, or you find that your planning is inefficient, teachers start to become super-inefficient this time of year. That’s because they’re tired out from the entire year and there’s a lot of problems and stress in the air.

I think teachers need to be aware that they’re operating on these emotional-intellectual dimensions of students’ brains, and so they need to give themselves a little bit of a break.

Teachers are experiencing cognitive overload at this time of year, too

A few things that can help them not feel so overloaded… One is when you’re feeling overloaded, just step back from the notion of tyranny of coverage, where you feel this massive pressure you need to cover all this stuff before it’s too late with kids. Just say to yourself as you’re walking into the classroom, “What’s the one or two critical things that kids need to know from this class when they walk out of the door?” That’s one of the things.

Also, when I talk to teachers, I don’t see a lot of them who can describe their planning. They’re not really conscious of how they plan the lessons – they just kind of do it. Sometimes, if you’re a teacher and you find yourself, you’re sitting down and you keep checking social media and you can’t get started, you’re probably experiencing some overload. Before you sit down to plan, actually having a plan to plan a checklist of how you’re going to approach things – that will help you be more efficient and reduce the stress.

Vicki: You know, sometimes I’ll put on headphones and listen to music to kind of get in the right frame of mind, so I’ll be able to plan. The one thing the headphones do is they, in some ways, keep me tethered to my desk so I’m not tempted to get up and do something else! (laughs)

Todd: (laughs)

I think I have those Bose noise-cancelling headphones. I think they’re actually a cue. I’ll have my soundtrack of music that has no words in it. After a time, I’ll realize that I’ve had the headphones on for two hours without anything going through them. That can get you started listening to certain kinds of soundtracks. The hardest thing with all this stuff is starting. Once you’re into it, you’re good to go.

Vicki: So, Todd, as we finish up, can cognitive overload actually look a little bit like ADD?

Todd: It can, and it gets confused with ADD. I’ve was just reading some research on this recently.

Cognitive overload can be confused with ADD

The brain is so complex that sometimes the indicators are the same, and you know you can have a kid with cognitive overload and ADHD as well.

But I think what I’m learning is that problems with working memory is something that we’re underdiagnosing and calling it something else — behavior problems or kids just not focusing or not caring or being apathetic, when it’s actually that they’re experiencing memory loss, very quickly.

There’s are some things that kids can do, or our teachers can do, to help with that. You can build working memory capacity, by having students teach you something or you could have them say to picture things in your head like instructions, or even games like UNO are really useful for building memory capacity, and there are programs that exist too that help with that.

Vicki: Wow, there’s so much to dig into here.

I think, teachers, the important thing to understand is to realize that cognitive overload does happen.

It happens to you. It happens to me. It happens to our students.

Just because somebody’s having trouble focusing does not mean that it’s ADD. I have two kids with learning differences. I know working memory is a factor there for one of them. I totally get and understand this.

It would really frustrate me when teachers would give these massive multi-part directions with like “I gave you ten verbal instructions, and you forgot them all.”

I think it’s important for us to remember that working memory can change with age, but that all kids have different working memory, and sometimes we can have a different working memory as well, just depending on how much is coming at us. I find it real easy to overload.

So these are great tips. Todd also has a lot of great resources at his website,, and he’s got a lot of articles on Edutopia.

It’s just a fantastic educator to follow. As you can tell it kind of opens our minds.

Now we’ve a got a lot to look for, especially the eyes dashing back and forth, I’m so excited to be able to read that facial body language. I think that’s so important as a part of being a teacher. So, teachers, get out there, and let’s try to apply this now, this week, this cognitive overload and see what we can do about it. Thanks for listening!

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Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Todd Blake Finley, PhD, is a tenured associate professor of English Education at East Carolina University and an assistant editor/blogger at Edutopia: George Lucas Education Foundation.


Twitter: @finleyt

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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