by Benjamin S. Goldschmidt, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Duquesne University
Have you ever been so busy you forgot a meeting even though you had entered it in your calendar? Since becoming an assistant professor, I have done this many times–as hard as it is to admit. I believe the reason has to do with cognitive load. Cognitive load is the amount you can store in your short-term memory at the same time. As professors, we are tasked with many different duties such as performing research, mentoring and teaching students, and overseeing special projects for student groups and the department. The cognitive load we bear is significant. Thus the stereotype of an absent-minded professor can be quite real.
Have you ever considered the cognitive load on your students? Put yourself in a student’s shoes. Their cognitive load is for new tasks as socialization to college, apartment/residence living, and employment, in addition to taking multiple classes each semester. One common problem all academic institutions have is simply getting students to turn in their work on time, or sometimes at all. People attribute this to varied reasons such as student choices or the difficulty of the work, but what if that isn’t the whole story? What if the organization of our courses has a dramatic impact on whether or not students submit assignments?
To investigate this, I ran an informal experiment during the first semester I taught Biomaterials & Characterization Techniques at Duquesne University. I asked students to turn in one single document every Monday at noon called a “WrHLD.” WrHLD, pronounced “world,” stands for the four weekly assignments: Writing, Homework, Lab and Design. I uploaded a template (WrHLWrHLD) to the Blackboard course site so that the students could simply drop the four assignments into a pre-formatted single submission each week.
Although students found the course challenging, by the end I noticed a greater than 50% reduction in the number of students forgetting to submit weekly work, compared to a previous course with weekly assignments. And this occurred despite the course requiring a lot of student work.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t had missteps with this technique. One unexpected piece of the cognitive load was that I asked students to label each WrHLD with a number corresponding to which week of the semester we were in (i.e. Week 1 = WrHLD #1). This, however, proved to be a comparatively complex process. The students turned in their work, but overwhelmingly forgot what week we were in. I often got WrHLDs without numbers and had to determine the week by the content. In the future, I will simply use the date the assignment is due rather than an arbitrary number. I expect to see a significant improvement in labeling assignments once this is implemented.
After giving it some thought, I believe the improvement in student submission of weekly work resulted from three factors.
- Consistent, weekly due dates that do not change throughout the semester
- Having a single consolidated assignment for students to turn in each week
- Having a memorable acronym (WrHLD) along with a template available on Blackboard to remind students of what they need to submit every week
Each factor reduces the cognitive load for students by simplifying what they have to remember week to week. Having reduced the extraneous cognitive load on students, I can now guide them in focusing on important course content and skills rather than on when and what assignments are due.
Image Credits: The hand drawn images in this post were created by Kiara Yough, student aide at Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence and a Biomedical Engineering student.