Collaborative learning—when people work together in small groups to help each other learn—is considered an effective instructional approach. But research shows that the benefits of collaborative learning, both in-person and in the virtual classroom, are mixed (Kirschner et. al., 2011).
In an effort to discover the cause of these inconsistent results, researchers have been studying the effects of collaborative learning on working memory. Specifically, they examined how cognitive load might contribute to the difficulty or ease of collaborative learning tasks.
A Little Background
It is well accepted that our working memory resources are limited. The term cognitive load refers to the total working memory resources that are required to carry out a learning task (Sweller, 1998). (See What is Cognitive Load for more on this.)
Instructional designers can apply strategies to reduce extraneous cognitive load—the way that information or tasks are presented to the learner. Reducing extraneous load increases the mental resources available for actual learning tasks. Cognitive load theory typically focuses on individual rather than group learning, which is why I found the research discussed here to be of special interest.
What types of tasks cause high cognitive load?
A key to understanding cognitive load is to think in terms of the complexity of a learning task. Cognitive load is higher when there is greater element interactivity in the information to be processed. Conversely, when the information to be processed consists of independent elements, the cognitive load is lower.
For example, memorizing the definitions of 20 parts of the human body is not a complex task because each definition can be learned independently. On the other hand, learning how the components of human anatomy work together is a complex task, because the components interact. Note: the expertise of the learner also affects task complexity.
How might collaborative learning reduce cognitive load?
Collective Working Space. There is a theory that collaborative learning can create a collective working memory, which potentially gives learners an expanded capacity to process information (Kirschner et al., 2011). Theoretically, this occurs because the cognitive load of the learning task can be subdivided across members of the group who share relevant knowledge. Studies found that sharing the load of complex tasks provides an advantage over individualized work.
One way this might occur is in distributed problem solving or learning tasks. The element interactivity for each individual in a group is less than the element interactivity the person might need to manage during individual learning.
A Timing Effect. Related to the collective work space, the timing of information contribution may also be of benefit to collaborative learning. When different group members contribute relevant content, the information is likely to be introduced at the time that it is is needed, which can reduce cognitive load (Kirschner et al., 2018). This means there is no need for each individual to try and hold an excessive amount of information in working memory.
How might collaborative learning increase cognitive load?
Perhaps you’ve felt that group learning was a waste of time and effort when communicating with team members or when organizing team tasks. These activities are considered transaction costs, which require the resources of working memory to pursue (Kirschner et al., 2009). When transaction costs are high, they increase cognitive load. Therefore, the advantages of collaborative learning must be greater than the costs of interacting, organizing and planning with team members.