For a learner to get information from the textbook into their long-term memories requires many cognitive functions. In this blog article, we’ll explore the role of a dedicated study space for a homeschool learner and try to answer why this is important. To answer this question, we look to cognitive load theory.
Cognitive load theory
Cognitive load is a scientific term used to describe the amount of strain we put on our memory when we study and learn new material. When we learn new things, there are two types of memory that are important.
- Working memory – Working memory has a limited capacity and is where everything we learn goes first. The average person can hold around seven bits of information in their working memory. Any more than that will probably be forgotten.
- Long-term memory – Long-term memory is theoretically unlimited and is where new information goes once it has passed through the working memory. Things like your name, your phone number and birthdate are examples of information that is in your long-term memory. When information is consolidated to our long-term memories, we are well on our way to learning and remembering that information.
Cognitive load is the process of our working memories being filled with relevant information. Once it reaches capacity and we try to add more information, we are exceeding our cognitive load capacity and we will struggle to learn.
What does cognitive load have to do with study spaces?
How do we process information? We process information by using our senses. Learners have many ways in which they process information, but reading a textbook is the most common way.
If a learner works through their textbook, their working memory fills up with new information. We call this intrinsic load, or the effort needed to understand the work they are busy with. This will differ from subject to subject and based on a learner’s foundational knowledge of the subject they will exert a certain cognitive effort.
The problem comes in with what we call extraneous load or things that result in extra cognitive effort irrelevant to understanding the work.
In other words, if your working memory capacity was a box that could take seven blocks, both the information you are learning, and the extra information add blocks to the same box. This means that for every extra block in the box, the learner loses one space for learning the new work. Our study spaces thus have a direct influence on our ability to study and learn effectively.
Study space tips
With an understanding of how we learn and process new information, here are some tips to help you maximise your study space for learning.
- Remove TVs, mobile phones, laptops and computers from your study space
In the context of the 21st-century, these are all devices that form part of our learning journey and aren’t necessarily a bad thing. However, they add extra information to our working memories when they are displaying things irrelevant to what we are studying. There is nothing wrong with a YouTube video on baking an apple pie if you want to learn how to bake an apple pie. But when you are watching the same video while studying factorisation in maths, you will struggle to learn. WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and other social media have the same effect and the chance of you effectively studying while engaging with these platforms are very slim.
If the desk in your study space looks more like a display for a garage sale than a space dedicated to studying, you are likely adding extra information to your working memory. Every time your attention shifts to one of the objects on the desk you are adding extra information to your working memory. To respect the limits of your working memory, it is important to have a clean space to study. Try to put away toys and gadgets that might distract you from the task at hand.
- Study in silence
Lots of research has been done on the influence of music and other audio on the learning process. While there is still some debate on the influence of classical music on learning, we know that music with lyrics, podcasts and other audio of the sort is detrimental to the learning process. If music or audio have spoken words, they add to our cognitive load and decreases our potential for learning. Try to study in silence to give yourself the best chance of mastering the material.
- Create a good study environment
Try not to study on your bed or other areas that you associate with relaxation and entertainment as you have trained your brain to expect these things in this environment. If your brain has to make sense of why you are now studying on your bed instead of sleeping, it will take up some of your cognitive capacity and hamper your learning.
Now that you know how important it is to have a dedicated study space and understand why this is important as part of your learning journey, challenge yourself to make some changes to your study space. Try to think of things that add extra information to your mind when you are trying to learn something and remove these items from your study space.
By Dr Nicolaas Matthee: Instructional Designer at Optimi