In our blog post on cognitive load theory, we learned how to reduce cognitive load when implementing the Readiness Assurance Process (RAP). Educators should also reduce cognitive load for the prework component. Prework is one of the key components of Team-based Learning (TBL) classes – students must complete a set of preparatory materials before the class. By reducing the cognitive load of prework, students will be able to learn and retain information more effectively.
Backward Design Approach
Educators teaching using traditional didactic lectures typically approach course design in a “forward design” manner where they consider the learning activities, develop assessments around the learning activities, and then draw connections to the learning objectives of the course. However, in team-based learning, educators follow the backward design process to design the course curriculum.
The backward design approach allows educators to plan the course with a focus on student learning (McTighe and Wiggins, 2016). The approach encourages instructors to consider the learning objectives of the course first. Once the learning objectives have been determined, educators should then plan the assessments and learning activities.
Preparing the Prework
- Ensure prework is relevant to the content that students need to learn.
Educators should only include relevant information in the prework. A person can only process so much information at once – too much information can lead to cognitive overload, which hinders how much of the information can be transferred from the working memory to the long-term memory (Mayer, 2014). To avoid including irrelevant information, educators should use the learning objectives and determine what is being tested in various application and RAT activities as a guide when preparing prework.
Some instructors prefer to prepare summarized presentation slides as prework for students to avoid cognitive overload. Other instructors provide mandatory prework and optional reading materials, hence motivating students to first acquire the fundamental knowledge and then later dive into other subject matters if they wish to. This approach gives students much more freedom in their learning journey.
In content-intensive courses, such as medical sciences, instructors sometimes highlight book chapters or portions of text relevant to students. In many curriculums, students are taught how to quickly scan and find information in research papers so that they are able to learn and retain information necessary to them.
- Prework should be set at a suitable level for students.
When preparing prework for students, instructors should consider the level of the students. If the prework is too difficult for their level, they will not be able to retain information well (Freeman, 2020). Some instructors conduct a survey or knowledge test at the beginning of the semester to assess the level of understanding of students. Based on the results, the instructor decides on the level of difficulty that needs to be set for the class. By setting prework at a suitable level, intrinsic cognitive load of the students may be better managed.
- Include short videos in the prework.
Prework can come in all types of formats – videos, infographics, book chapters, and case studies. However, most students tend to prefer short videos as they would be able to focus on them better and learn more effectively. In fact, research has shown that the longest period one can expect to maintain intense focus and effort toward learning is 90 minutes (Huberman, 2021). Additionally, videos create a more engaging sensory experience – students get to see and hear the concept being taught, and process it the same way they process their everyday interactions (Bevan, 2020). Videos can also increase knowledge retention since they can be replayed as many times as needed.
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