Friday, September 30, 2016

Psychological Tools Reduce Cognitive Overload and Optimize Learning

       Psychological tools provide the most important thing a culture passes on to its members Vygotsky (1979). These tools are cognitive devices and procedures whereby we effectively communicate and explore the world around us.  They both aid and change our mental functioning.  Speech, writing, gestures, diagrams, numbers, chemical formulas, musical notation, rules, and memory techniques exemplify common psychological tools.  Eventually these social interactions become internalized as cognitive processes that are automatically invoked.  Quoting Vygotsky researchers Tudge and Scrimsher (2003), “through others we become ourselves” (p. 218).
       An effective educator creates a defined educational culture by optimizing structured learning through the utilization of strategies exhibiting high levels of success.  The first pursuit in this endeavor is to mitigate learning overload.  Learning overload prevents educators from helping students realize progress and achieve stated goals (Reason, 2010).  Citing Kennedy (2006) and Franklin (2005), Reason (2010) further notes, “We can’t alter the brain to hold more information, but we can change our approach to learning in ways that reduce overwhelm and prepare us to deal with institutional challenges more effectively” (p. 99). 
        In any learning environment, the student’s reticular activating system (RAS) impacts his or her attention and motivation.  Therefore, the RAS impacts how efficiently students address the curriculum focal points.  The effective educator recognizes this and seeks to “clearly identify the learning focal points that matter” (Reason, 2010, p. 100) as a way to mitigate stressors that overwhelms one’s perception and attention to curriculum focal points.
       Many institutes of higher education find adult learning benefits from a scheme or model for promoting critical thinking as based on the Perry Scheme (Perry, 1968).  The model is comprised of nine stages within four levels of cognitive ability: dualism, multiplicity, relativism and commitment to relativism.

1.      Dualists think in terms of black and white or right and wrong.  They perceive the need for an objective truth.  They avoid group discussions because they find them to be a waste of time.

2.      Multiplists, by contrast, believe that truth is completely subjective.  Everyone’s opinion or experience is legitimate.

3.      Relativists believe that truth is contextual, therefore what is right or wrong is relative to a particular context or frame of reference.  Since students at this level are able to evaluate the merits of a particular position based on available data, and circumstances can change at any given moment, their thinking is very fluid.

4.      Commitment to relativism is the final stage, whereby individuals are very self-aware and view knowledge as progressive and evolving.  New information is constantly being compiled, evaluated, and synthesized and therefore new knowledge replaces previous thoughts and beliefs.  Philosophically, this level relates to scientific inquiry.
       Acronyms and mnemonics are two psychological tools utilizing social interactions within an educational environment for effectively reducing neurological overload and increasing learning of desired goals.  Metaphors provide another effective metacognitive tool.  As a figure of speech providing an implied comparison, the effective educator can utilize metaphors to increase utilization of vocabulary, promote higher order thinking, and reinforce a desired commitment to relativism. 
       Effective learning environments utilize these psychological tools, thereby reducing learning overload by optimizing metacognition (Bohlin et al., 2008).  In the FAT City Workshop, Lavoie (1989) discourages the creation of instructional environments that exacerbate frustration, anxiety, and tension (FAT).  Prospective and in-service teachers are encouraged to eliminate FAT in the classrooms and optimize a learning environment approaching nirvana (LEAN).  Metaphors, acronyms, and mnemonics provide three psychological tools utilizing social interactions within an educational environment to effectively reduce cognitive overload and thereby increase the opportunity for learning.

To cite:

Anderson, C.J. (September 30, 2016) Psychological tools reduce cognitive overload and optimize
            learning  [Web log post]    Retrieved from


Bohlin, L., Durwin, C., & Reese-Weber, M. (2011). Ed psych: Modules. NY: McGraw-Hill.

 Lavoie, R. (1989) How difficult can this be? F.A.T. City--A learning disabilities workshop DVD
                Retrieved from
Rapaport, W.J. (2011) William Perry's scheme of intellectual and ethical development.
              Retrieved from
Reason, C. (2010). Leading a learning organization: The science of working with others. Bloomington,
             IN: Solution Tree Press.
Tudge, J., & Scrimsher, S. (2003). Lev S. Vygotsky on education: A cultural-historical,
                interpersonal, and individual approach to development. In B. J. Zimmerman &
                D. H. Schunk (Eds.), Educational psychology: A century of contributions
                (pp. 207–228) Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.