Using Load Reduction Instruction to Manage Cognitive Load

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Are our PE teachers leading the way in knowledge instruction?

In a research paper published by Dudley et al, 2020, researchers unpick the pedagogical constraints of physical literacy based on cognitive load theory.

Physical literacy is on the rise!

“While numerous studies have highlighted the benefits of physical activity on cognitive health, learning, and executive function, maintaining physical activity throughout one’s life lies with the acquisition of physical literacy.”

Physical literacy is on the rise. At “least eight countries” are using the term in policy documents (Martins et al. 2020). The paper goes on to discuss cognitive load theory. If overload occurs, new knowledge cannot be encoded or retained in long-term memory.

“Many models of physical literacy now explicitly recognise the importance of a cognitive learning dimension.”

This research highlights that physical literacy tasks individuals to “draw from at least two different learning domains (physical and affective)” (Cairney et al., 2019). This makes physical literacy prone to cognitive overload.

For example, PE teachers wish to develop long-term health and wellbeing, asking students to retain new and important physical literacy knowledge (at the same time during exercise) poses a significant challenge. This should remind teachers that “long-term memory does not have the same limitations as working memory.”

If teachers can shape this capacity and access this storage area more efficiently, then successful learning can take place!

A student’s ability to maintain high levels of affect, confidence, and competence in movement are inherently linked to one’s ability to effectively process knowledge… (Cairney et al. 2019)

What can teachers do?

Dual coding is also highlighted as an effective strategy. When information from different modalities are chunked together, working memory can work more efficiently. For example:

Bears enjoy eating honey.

Dual Coding Webinar

Embodied Cognition

In the classroom, PE teachers who teach students a new movement or school “should observe the action and then perform the action.” The research recommends that “this sequence of observation then performance leads to activation of a specific set of neurons in the brain” (putative mirror neuron system) (Chong et al, 2008)


  1. Observe the example
  2. Perform the action
  3. Use the physical environment to interact with the world.

Whilst teachers will know that demonstration and modelling are critical and that it is nothing new, this research highlights that timing is of great importance. If we return to the PE classroom, an explanation should be synchronised with the related movements to help the student connect the words with perceptual meaning.

A student who strengthens their synapses to a degree of automation, can process information in their working memory space and reduced this, as they can retrieve from long-term memory without conscious effort. Therefore, as students develop expertise, autonomy increases and the need for regular “demonstrations for familiar skills becomes redundant.”

Goals when using cognitive load theory

All students start off as novices.  At many points in their development of physical literacy, it is “important to reduce the cognitive burden in the initial stages of the learning process.” For schools, we need to ensure our teachers understand the challenge of cognitive load on an individual’s ability to acquire new knowledge.

Load Reduction Instruction (LRI, Martin 2016) is an instructional model to manage cognitive load. There are 5 key principles cited:

  1. reducing the difficulty of instruction during initial learning,
  2. instructional support and scaffolding,
  3. ample structured practice,
  4. appropriate provision of instructional feedback, and
  5. guided independent learning.

As students differ in expertise LRI “can consist of both explicit and discovery instructional approaches.” I’d be curious to hear from educators who are direct instructional advocates and if they view ‘discovery learning’ having any place in managing cognitive load. Whatever instruction teachers choose, “LRI is designed to deliver instruction and/or instructional support” to reduce cognitive burden.

Increasing fluency and automation enhances student motivation and engagement. They support learning. “In the physical literacy literature, motivation and effective learning is often framed in terms of confidence (motivation) and enjoyment/fun (positive effect).”

Poorly behaved classrooms increase working memory…

There is an interesting section on negative emotions. In terms of fight or flight, focusing attention on current threats to safety or wellbeing all require working memory space. For me, this stresses the importance for teachers in managing a strong ethos, relationships and student emotions in the classroom.

With the growing acceptance of cognitive load theory in learning, there are 5 practical pedagogical strategies, in physical literacy and motor development in general, that teachers might adopt.

5 recommendations for teachers

  1. Reduce the difficulty of a task during initial learning
  2. Provide instructional support and scaffolding for learning
  3. Provide ample structured practice, including using deliberate practice, mental practice (also known as a visual imagery or rehearsal) and guided practice.
  4. Provide appropriate provision of instructional feedback, including feedback and feedforward.
  5. Guide independent practice and provide greater autonomy as students display evidence of fluency and automaticity in their learning.

It is also worth mentioning that if students are given problems to solve, without the necessary cognitive schema, they will resort to inefficient strategies which impose on working memory.

The researchers concluded with something our politicians should also consider: “How cognitive load influences other aspects of executive function and motor control might be a fruitful place to start.”

There is hope for the Arts having a stronger grip on our key stage 4 curriculum…

You can read the full research paper on Springer.

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