Understanding the brain’s cognitive load, which is the ability to absorb and process information, helps us better retain new material. Problem solving, learning and memory are interconnected within our brains. Coaching requires people to retain new information, process it and then act upon it. Therefore, if both a coach and client understand the parameters of the brain, sessions could have a quicker impact. Here are three reasons why….
Three Reasons why Understanding Cognitive Load is Helpful
1. Improved Problem Solving
Cognitive load theory was first outlined in the 1980s by John Sweller, an educational psychologist at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He deduced that learning and problem solving are not two separate activities. Essentially, a great problem solver is someone who has a good deal of knowledge relating to the problem at hand. This means that problem solving is “domain specific”. In other words, being good at solving maths problems won’t make you good at resolving relationship issues.
Working memory is what you are conscious of at any given moment in time. However, unlike long-term memory, which is immense and permanent, working memory is limited. In fact, our working memories actually don’t hold information for longer than a few seconds.
Our long-term memory is the area of our brains that information we may need to solve problems is stored in. This information is then fed into our working memory as we need it. When we have the information already stored, solving a problem is easier. Thus, the more we learn about a topic the greater the range of problems we can more easily solve.
2. Enhanced Cognitive Load Processes
When a coach is working with a client on something they already know, they are working with that client’s long-term memory. In contrast to this, a client without pre-existing knowledge will battle to incorporate strategies to change. Thus, if the links between memory types are understood, a coach can adjust their approach within a behavioural change process. Which could then result in faster and more effective behavioural change linked results.
Sweller notes that the human brain is only able to memorise about seven bits of new information at a time. As such, when it comes to processing information, the amount of material the brain can hold is even less. Most of us can only compare or analyse two to three bits of information at a time.
This has important implications when coaches present their clients with new concepts. Learning something new puts your working memory under “cognitive load” since the limits of working memory have been reached. Through revision and practice, information moves to our long-term memory. Thereby, freeing up our capacity to absorb more new information. We are also then able to use existing knowledge to solve problems and that’s when we have that “Aha!” moment.
3. Accelerated Learning
For coaches, trying to introduce new concepts to clients, Sweller has the following three nuggets of advice:
1. Reduce Working Memory Load
A PowerPoint presentation forces the client to simultaneously absorb both written and auditory information. This requires the brain to use resources from the very limited working memory and can cause cognitive overload. Instead, advises Sweller, either speak or allow the client to read. Don’t make them do both at the same time.
2. Don’t Split Focus
Avoid having the clients split their attention in order to find meaning. For example, a label positioned away from its corresponding diagram forces the brain to find the connection between the two. Once again using up valuable working memory resources unnecessarily and thereby slowing down the learning process.
3. Limit Problem Solving
When learning, clients should not be engaged in large amounts of problem solving. Problem solving places a large demand on the working memory. It reduces the brain’s capacity to absorb and learn new material. Instead, give clients concrete examples which they can quickly understand and show them how to work things out.
Becoming a Coach
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