Cognitive load theory is an instructional theory based on human cognitive architecture (that is, the cognitive functions that allow us to learn) which looks at the characteristics of working memory and long-term memory, and how teacher instruction can best account for these factors.
Early in my teaching career, I was disturbed by a note left by the substitute teacher. She wrote that during the three days she was with my students, they were responsive during the first part of class, but that many of them became inattentive, distracted, and even disruptive after about 20 minutes of her instruction. When I asked the students what had happened, they were of one voice: “She didn’t give us our brain breaks.”
It may seem that getting instant results would enhance learning, but various studies indicate a benefit to feedback that is delayed. Test takers are more likely to retain the correct answer if they receive it several seconds after providing their answers rather than immediately. To understand why delayed answers improve learning, researchers at Iowa State University asked college students to give their best guess to trivia questions such as “Who coined the word ‘nerd’?” and “What color is a grasshopper's blood?” and to rate how curious they were about each answer. For half of the items, participants learned the correct answer immediately after responding to the question. For the remaining items, the answers either followed a four-second delay or an unpredictable interval of two, four or eight seconds. The students were then tested on the questions after engaging in unrelated distracting tasks.
We can pick out a conversation in a loud room, amid the rise and fall of other voices or the hum of an air conditioner. We can spot a set of keys in a sea of clutter, or register a raccoon darting into the path of our onrushing car. Somehow, even with massive amounts of information flooding our senses, we’re able to focus on what’s important and act on it.