Posted by: Gregory Linton | 07/14/2011

Varieties of Cognitive Overload in Higher Education

In an earlier post, I wrote about the ways in which course scheduling in higher education ignores current research on the limits of working memory. My thinking on this issue was confirmed even more by my recent reading of The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory by Torkel Klingberg (Oxford University Press, 2009). Klingberg, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, is a leading researcher in this field. He has written an accessible and interesting book on current research in working memory.

Unfortunately, he does not discuss the implications of this research for education. It seems to me that it is very relevant for discussions about the lack of learning that takes place in college. In their recent controversial book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa presented evidence that college students learn little during their four-year careers. Why? They suggest it is because professors require little of their students. So what is the remedy? Require more reading, more writing, more homework, more assignments.

In other words, overload their memories even more than they already are. Maybe it is time that we consider the problem is not how much learning we require of students but how that learning is designed and delivered. Reading Klingberg’s book made me think of four primary ways in which traditional undergraduate education is designed to prevent knowledge from being retained in the memory.

1. Simultaneous Courses

Klingberg cites research that shows the human brain is unable to talk on a cell phone and drive a vehicle safely. If the brain cannot manage two relatively simple tasks like that at the same time, how can we expect the brain to learn the intricacies of philosophy, algebra, literature, history, and psychology all in one semester? The traditional structure requires students to study five subjects simultaneously in one semester, but only the most extraordinary brain can absorb and retain all of that information.

In the fall semester, I teach classes at 4:00 p.m. By the time students come to class, some of them have already sat through three classes that day. After sitting through five hours of classes in a day, how much of that knowledge is actually retained, even to the next day? Very little. But then the student must go back over all of it for the midterm, trying to cram it all back into the working memory for a few hours. Of course, after the test most of it just leaks out again.

2. Conflicting Subjects

Perhaps more of the information provided in those five courses would be retained if the subjects somehow connected with each other. Then the brain could create networks of neurons that interconnect and stabilize that knowledge. But most college programs are not intentionally and strategically designed to provide this kind of interconnection. To accomplish that would require cooperation among faculty, and faculty members are notoriously independent and territorial. Far too often, faculty members do their own little thing in their own little area of the curriculum without concern for how it relates to anything else in the curriculum. And then we expect students to somehow pull it all together on their own in a capstone course at the end.

3. 15-Week Courses

To make matters worse, we take those five courses a semester and spread them out over fifteen weeks. Let’s be honest. By the fifteenth week, very few students (and professors) remember anything that happened in the first week or two of class. Even the five-day gap that occurs between some classes (because of the weekend) hinders the brain from connecting anything in this week’s classes with what took place in the previous week. For many students and professors, fifteen weeks can seem interminable, especially in the spring. As I suggested in my earlier post, much research supports the fact that more learning takes place in intensive courses that meet for a limited time, focusing on only one subject. The information seems more cohesive and connected, and the brain does not seem to be taxed as much as with the traditional approach.

4. Long Class Periods

Many institutions have moved away from three 50-minute sessions each week to two 75-minute sessions, but do these longer class sessions improve or hinder learning? I have not looked into the research on this, but the findings of cognitive science may suggest that this move is counterproductive. Now, there are some aspects of the longer sessions that I like, but I am concerned that it is another way in which we try to cram more information into the already crammed-full working memory. The research on working memory shows that receiving smaller bits of information with resting periods between inputs is more effective at moving that information from the short-term memory into the long-term memory. But in higher education we dispense a lot of information in a long period of time, give the students ten minutes between classes, and then start cramming more information about an unrelated subject into their working memories.


  1. I really appreciate the graciousness and open-endedness of this analysis. It’s initial, but it gives students some benefit of the doubt. Maybe students aren’t just “stupid” or “lazy.” Maybe the system’s got some issues that should be addressed.

    • I meant to include that same observation at the end, so I am glad that you saw the implications also. When professors see the dismal results of exit exams that are supposed to assess learning, they tend to blame the students for not working hard enough, for not taking their time in college seriously. Arum and Roksa tend to blame professors as much or more than students. They think professors cut corners and do not have high expectations of students. However, I don’t know many students or professors who think they are not working hard enough and need to do more. So I am suggesting that maybe we need to consider that the structure or design of our curriculum creates interference in the brain that prevents it from retaining long-term knowledge.

  2. This write up is such a great help to our research. Our group is conducting an educational research which is related to this article. If you won’t mind, may we know where your country is? We might also have further queries about this research, we will give credits to you sir. We’ll hope for your positive response. by the way we are college students from the Philippines. Thank you sir.

    • I am in the USA. You can see information about me by clicking on the Author tab.

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