Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 6: Cognitive Load

Level 6 - Fall back! Fall back! We're in over our head!!!

The term cognitive load speaks to an evolving theory on learning, memory and instructional design that identifies three factors (called intrinsic, germane and extraneous load) that influence learning. Intrinsic load describes the inherent difficulty in a learning process, question or scheme (reading The Lorax is inherently easier than A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu). Germane load speaks to the work the mind does when it is learning, organizing information and making sense of complex concepts. Extraneous load is that load that requires memory, mental resources, effort or energy that might otherwise have been used to deal with the germane load of a problem (there's nothing you can do as an instructor, teacher or lesson planner to alter the intrinsic load inherent in a particular question). In essence, intrinsic load is fixed, germane load is what you as the instructor is looking to maximize and extraneous load is what, by skillful design and classroom management, you are trying to manage.

If only I had understood this in August when I was designing the America 3.0 course, I could have avoided some potholes!

What's frustrating from a curriculum design and game-based learning perspective is that  I knew all of this in August but didn't really make the connections I needed to in order to understand that the design of the learning experience would have the kind of influence over the learner's experience that it would have. Being a gamer, it should have been clear.

Anyone who has played video games would recognize everything I said above about cognitive load. I will speak to this through my experiences playing World of Warcraft, but I think you're likely to find that these experiences speak to other video games as well. 

In WOW, intrinsic load speaks to how inherently difficult it is to complete a game task. Farming minerals to make gold is not at all difficult, and people have been known to do it almost robotically. Killing mobs in the world or "trash" in an instance is likewise not very difficult. 5-man instance bosses are intrinsically harder, heroic 5-man instance bosses harder still, building to raid bosses which are the most intrinsically difficult bosses in the game to learn how to vanquish. The germane load of killing trash mobs is so low that it can barely be measured. The germane load of killing a complex raid boss is generally so high that even good teams of players can suffer TPKs (total party kills or "wipes" - where every player's character is killed before the boss is defeated) numbering in the hundreds before they succeed. In the case of World of Warcraft, extraneous load would refer to the design of the user's experience: how they play the game, the information the game presents to them, how they use the interface to play the game. Blizzard Entertainment (WOW's publisher) is very sensitive to user criticism about these extraneous detail problems. Every piece of visual information has to clearly and unambiguously inform the player about what is happening to their character. When that doesn't happen, players' inability to play the game requires rapid correction. When the game's germane load is too high, which it sometimes is, Blizzard executes a change in the program itself to lessen the load. Gamers call this process "nerfing," and now I fully understand what nerfing is because of my design decisions in America 3.0.

When you are engaged in gamifying your own classroom, be highly mindful of the questions raised by cognitive load theory. This was a big mistake that I made in my initial design. I was far too ambitious, believing that the structure of the course was within my students' capacity to understand and work within. The work itself was entirely doable, but the way in which I structured the rules of the work was beyond a number of students' capacity to even understand.  In order to create a framework for student success, I had to nerf the structure of the course twice, once to make the KTs more manageable and then to lower the number of required achievements. I don't think that this experience means my gamified classroom was unsuccessful. Rather, it was a matter of having to make some critical changes in the middle of a class.

My sense of this is that younger students, by virtue of not having spent more time in conventional classrooms, will actually encounter less extraneous cognitive load in a gamified classroom than their older colleagues. The experience of my colleague Mike Irwin at Detroit's Henry Ford School for Creative Studies and the experience of the ClassRealm students speaks strongly to this.