CTL Blog

Tips for Limiting FACULTY’s Extraneous Cognitive Load in Online Classes

October 09, 2020 | 5 Minute Read

This guest post is by Celine Greene, Senior Instructional Technologist in the Center for Teaching and Learning.

In understanding Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and other sound, pedagogical practices, there are a lot of wonderful tips for designing an online course that will limit the extraneous cognitive load for students. A course that takes this into consideration allows students to exert their mental energy on learning as opposed to searching, sorting, tracking, deciphering, and interpreting the class site, activities, and communications. The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) even developed a succinct infographic on the topic, Tips for Limiting Extraneous Cognitive Load, currently housed on the CTL Toolkit Shelf.

But what of faculty and their own extraneous cognitive load? How might faculty plan and facilitate a course so that their energy isn’t being “zapped” by the myriad of competing items vying for their attention despite not being related to the course goals? How might faculty be able to more likely to focus on teaching without distraction, thereby better serving their students and themselves?

  • Strengthen your teaching core even before the term starts. Just like the mind-body workout of Pilates keeps us balanced and stable - protecting us both as we age and when we trip on the crack in the sidewalk - faculty should be exercising their “teaching core” to protect themselves and provide stability as they move through a term. Having a strong core means that a hiccup in an activity - such as a required reading not being available anymore, or a microphone that stops working all of the sudden - will not derail you; you will more easily pivot, keep calm, and teach on!
  • Don’t be caught off-guard! Know the academic and productivity technologies that are available to you and your students. There are several licensed software suites and apps available to all Johns Hopkins faculty and students. Many can be very beneficial in creating accessible resources for your courses as well as incorporating in assignments for students’ use. Some are free with your active JHED ID (e.g., Office 365, VoiceThread, and Panopto) and others require a cost center number for approval (e.g., the Adobe Creative Cloud). In addition, by request to the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), the Bloomberg school provides Poll Everywhere pro accounts to our faculty and TAs. Of course, one technology tool no one seems to be able to live without these days is Zoom! All faculty and students can have an account within the JHU Zoom enterprise license. Faculty can opt between basic (free) and licensed accounts. And with an active JHED ID, students can sign on to access their own licensed Zoom accounts (without cloud storage enabled).
  • Embrace instructional design as part of planning and developing your course. If you carefully and purposefully plan and facilitate your learning activities, you will have not only aligned your objectives, activities, and assessments – thereby always giving your students the “why” of learning (supporting UDL’s means of engagement) – but you will also reduce the likelihood of needing to clarify things to your students, troubleshoot technologies, and otherwise be distracted by items extraneous to the learning outcomes. Consider requesting a meeting with a CTL Instructional Designer to aid you in this process.
  • Build a stable course site that is consistent in its layout and navigation. Consider following the guidance on the Tips for Limiting Extraneous Cognitive Load document.
  • Use the tools built into CoursePlus to allow for efficiency and scalability. This includes (but isn’t limited to!) the Quiz Generator, Peer Assessment, Drop Box and Gradebook tools.
  • Be aware of your own limits! This includes answering the question “what potential impact might this have on me?” Have reasonable expectations not just of your students, but of yourself. And communicate your expectations to your students.
    • Will you set aside time each day to respond to a Discussion Forum or emailed query, or will your attention and time to respond be impromptu? Be careful in setting a precedent where you might respond “quickly” one week, and then be too busy the next.
    • Are you asking the students to use their video in a Zoom session? Will it be distracting to see 25 talking heads – to you or to your students? Cognitive overload may happen when we see ourselves on screen, never mind trying to pay attention and connect with several webcam streams coming to us.
    • Are you planning assignments that can be reviewed, including meaningful feedback, in a feasible timeframe? If not, consider alternatives to the assignment or to the grading method itself, including embracing rubrics and/or peer evaluation methods.

In summary, take control where and when you can to reduce potential distractions while you teach. Allow your efforts to go toward the matters that are directly related to the course objectives and maintaining an environment that encourages and supports all your learners to be successful.

ADMIT IT: You are WORKING HARD! Now, do yourself a favor and make a promise to WORK BETTER! You’ll be amazed how beneficial planning now will be for you in the long run.