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Cognitive Load Theory explored through modelling in the practical classroom

Written by: Josie Morgan
Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash
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5 min read

The basis of teaching in a practical classroom, such as art and design or design technology, is the much repeated and reliable teacher-led demonstration. These demonstrations or modelling approaches allow the teacher to inform, instruct and guide students in their own practical outcomes; however, only recently have I considered the impact of cognitive load theory (CLT) upon how I deliver a modelling session to students.

Much has been mentioned recently on Twitter, in articles like this and in discussion at many school INSET and CPD sessions about CLT and the implications that it can have on us as teachers and our planning of the curriculum; we are encouraged to improve our instructional procedures in the classroom, ensuring that our teaching is tailored to students’ knowledge and skills. Use of worked examples is key, as is the removal of inessential information and simplifying complex information by presenting it both orally and visually. However, the research is often heavily weighted towards those subjects that deliver lessons where theory teaching is prevalent, not classrooms where creativity and practical outcomes are a key component and a necessity for successful progression.

Gathercole and Alloway (2007) have stated that the working memory has a limited capacity, and handling too much information or engaging in a demanding task can overwhelm the working memory of students; this builds upon the initial research from Sweller et al. (1998), which asserts that the working memory of our mind can only handle a limited amount of information at one time. With this understanding in mind, my approach to demonstrations over the last year of teaching has adapted in an attempt to support student progress through the application of CLT.

The approach to modelling I initially took was to evaluate my current success rate of student understanding whilst I model a new technique; immediately, before checking student outcomes, it was clear that I used a lot of instructions, some not completely pertinent to the demonstration that I was completing. These wordy demonstrations completely discounted the processing capacity of my students, and this was evident in their outcomes. Within an introduction to the sewing machine lesson, students who succeeded had managed to follow my instructions or asked for support from their peers, whilst those students who needed further support asked considerably more questions or were on the verge of refusing to complete the task.

It then became necessary that I detailed for myself exactly what I wanted to discuss in my modelling, and explained that to students before completing the teacher-led demonstration. For example, in a GCSE art lesson, I was explicit that students must watch my control of the paintbrush when using acrylic paint and not concern themselves with the colour-mixing process. With Year 7 textiles, I decided to make the explicit skill a question that they could answer: how do you complete a successful straight line of sewing on the sewing machine? My modelling to students took a more focused approach and did have a positive impact upon the outcomes; however, it did then mean that, as a result, I was doing more teacher-led modelling sessions to cover all the skill and knowledge that I wished to in one lesson. This was not an approach I wished to maintain in the long term, as it made the modelling and learning process fragmented and unmanageable in the space of an hour’s lesson. Therefore, I decided to spend time improving the teacher instruction, which hopefully will lead to the students doing more and doing it better.

After a discussion with a colleague in maths, I was directed to an article by Linsin, ‘Why silent modelling is a powerful strategy’ (2014). Within this article, Linsin asserts that when you model in silence, you are assured of providing the purest form of instruction. With this in mind, I again adapted my approach to modelling in lessons. This was by no means an easy task; I feel at a loss in demonstrations when I am not talking, and I was once reminded by a Year 7 that I shouldn’t be talking.

When modelling in silence, it was clear that both my and student focus were much more intense; a member of staff who observed me silent-model commented on how attentive the students were whilst I was on the sewing machine. It by no means has been an easy approach to modelling; my GCSE classes are much more reticent about watching a silent demonstration and their attention wains far quicker than my Year 7 classes. With the younger years, it is evident that they are more adaptable to new modelling techniques in the classroom, but they also enjoy watching a process come to fruition, whereas the older years are used to being told what to do and how to do it, and have been slower to follow the process and show success in comparison to Year 7 and 8 students. Having explored silent modelling in several practical demonstrations, my overriding concern was that if students missed a step, or if I didn’t make a step clear to understand for novice learners who had never seen a teacher demonstration previously and did not know what to look for, how would they feel in the lesson regarding their working memory and lesson outcomes? How would they keep up with the practical process without the feeling of being overwhelmed by information?

It became necessary to find a way that I could still use silent modelling successfully; students would still watch a silent demonstration, but I would support it further with visuals. I had previously trialled showing them online videos of artists working and they had responded well to these and to the related discussions, so I utilised technology to record videos of myself completing the tasks that they would soon be required to do themselves. Instead of recording the whole task, I focused on just key skills that they would need, and played the videos on loop throughout the lesson to complement the initial silent demonstration and support working memory without overloading the students. The student outcomes from this approach were much improved for Years 10 and 11, and student voice from the lesson was clear that the combined approach was something they preferred.

Reflecting on my experience, I like how silence during a demonstration focuses attention – attention being another limited resource, like working memory (Weinstein et al., 2018). As the younger students progress through their creative education, they will have become used to silent modelling and there will be none of the reticence I received from Year 10 and 11 students this year.

Taking this idea forward, it is clear that silent modelling must be more carefully planned in terms of the teacher-led direction and the key skills that you wish students to practically use and develop. When supported with other forms of instruction and planning, silence during modelling in a practical classroom can help to reduce the burden on students’ working memory and hopefully, in turn, lead to greater, more successful outcomes.


Gathercole SE and Alloway TP (2007) Understanding working memory: A classroom guide. Available at: (accessed 5 August 2019).

Linsin M (2014) Why silent modelling is a powerful strategy. In: Smart Classroom Management. Available at: (accessed 5 August 2019).

Sweller J, van Merrienboer JJG and Paas FGWC (1998) Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review 10(3): 251–296.

Weinstein Y, Sumeracki M and Caviglioli O (2018) Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide. Abingdon: Routledge.

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