Podcast S2. Ep. 20: Identifying And Reducing Cognitive Overload - Dr. Todd Finley

Character Strong · October 28, 2019

Todd Blake Finley, PhD, is a tenured Professor of English Education at East Carolina University and an assistant editor and blogger at Edutopia: George Lucas Education Foundation. He has taught elementary and 7-12th grade English and co-developed the Tar River Writing Project. Also, he was selected as one of the Top 12 Global Teacher Bloggers of 2014 and again in 2016 by Cathy Rubin for the Huffington Post. He has written Dinkytown Braves, a teaching memoir available on Amazon and Rethinking Classroom Design (Rowman & Littlefield) with Blake Wiggs. And he writes a free newsletter for educators.

We talk with Todd about cognitive overload, some ways that we can identify it, and he gives some tips for how to reduce cognitive overload for both students and teachers.


“... we do need to slow down and it takes the time it's going to take. So if you kind of walk into a class and think, "Well, what's the one or two critical things that kids need to know by the time they walk out?" And just have sort of intentions on those one or two things, then that's going to be better for your sense of anxiety about just covering so much..”

— Dr. Todd Blake Finley

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Dr. Todd Blake Finley. Todd is a tenured professor of English education at East Carolina University and an assistant editor and blogger at Edutopia, the George Lucas Education Foundation. He has taught elementary and seventh through 12th grade English and co-developed the Tar River Writing Project. Also, he was selected as one of the top 12 global teacher bloggers of 2014 and again in 2016 by Cathy Ruben for the Huffington Post. He has written Dinkytown Braves, a teaching memoir available on Amazon. And Rethinking Classroom Design, Roman and Littlefield, with Blake Wiggs. And he writes a free newsletter for educators. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Dr. Todd Blake Finley.
  • John: All right, we are so honored and excited to have Todd Finley with us today on the CharacterStrong podcast. Grateful for you taking the time.
  • Dr. Finley: Thank you.
  • John: So now Todd, you are a tenured professor, is that correct, of English Education at East Carolina University?
  • Dr. Finley: Yep, that's it.
  • John: Awesome. And also editor and blogger for Edutopia, which is awesome. Did I see in the bio George Lucas Education Foundation, which is pretty cool?
  • Dr. Finley: Yeah. George Lucas, that's his foundation, Edutopia. He has a real commitment to helping teachers.
  • John: That's wonderful. Well, I know that you dig into a lot of different areas. And so today we're real big believers, on our podcast, of kind of cut the fluff, get right to the really important stuff. When we were talking beforehand, I'd love to get you talking on the topic of cognitive overload. Would you be willing to start with that today and kind of share with us what that is and some of the work you've been doing there?
  • Dr. Finley: Sure. Well, this has been a real important area for me to help me with my teaching. So I have taught K-12 and I also specialize in English education methods, so I'm an education professor. So what I've learned about cognitive overload is that there's a bunch of experimental research that shows that too much information or too much stress or complexity, all of those tax working memory and working memory is that little sticky note that we use that keeps track of information until we use it in some way. So anytime that we're recalling directions or writing an essay, which is the most difficult thing you can ask the brain to do, or doing the Pythagorean Theorem, all of those are tasks that rely on working memory. So if there's issues with that, then there's really issues with learning. So an example of this might be, if you tell a kid to put certain numbers in order, they might be experiencing cognitive overload and would right away forget all but maybe the first number and then even forget what were the instructions, what are you having me do with that? So it's a critical part of learning.
  • John: Yeah, this is good. So let's keep digging into that then. So we have many educators, obviously, that are listening in, and if that's not ringing true to so many, it feels like this is constant, right, for our students. There's so much, not only on what can feel like too much info, it's coming at us at a rate of speed that it never has before and is so accessible, as well as then that stress piece, the anxiety that goes right along with it. We present to educators all around the country and say, "Raise your hand if you've seen an increase in anxiety over the last few years," and every hand, without hesitation, has gone up in the room. So let's talk then. How do we identify cognitive overload when it is occurring? Some of the signs, different things. I know you started talking about there, but talk a little bit more specifically there.
  • Dr. Finley: Sure. Well, the key things to look at, and one of the things that I noticed when I was teaching elementary was that when kids would struggle with something like I could ask them a question in class and they'd sit at their desk. What they'd do is they'd sort of put their hand over their eyes like a visor, so they were shutting me out. And then what I noticed over time is that what was happening is their eyes were twitching back and forth and they were doing this really natural thing, which is that for some reason looking at a face, particularly an adult, while you're problem solving is something that takes up a whole lot of RAM. So in order to to focus more and have a better working memory, you kind of block it out by not looking at you in the face. Also I've noticed when their eyes are twitching back and forth, that that's also an indicator of stress. One of the things I like to do is, my wife is a first grade teacher, I like to, when I'm sitting in the couch, ask her a hard question just to watch her eyes twitch back and forth.
  • John: So good.
  • Dr. Finley: Other stuff that teachers have always done is that they, or that they hear all the time, is that students say, "What are we supposed to do again?", or "I forgot my pencil," day after day after day. Or their mind is wandering or they appear disorganized in terms of missing work or all of their work is just crumpled in their backpack. So all of those are indicators of a cognitive overload. And I think sometimes we tend to think, as teachers, that what happened is they just weren't listening. What I've learned is that's certainly true, there are some kids that, if not focused on what you're saying, they aren't going to be able to follow instructions, but just as often is kids who will be looking at you, nodding, hearing your instructions, and then it just leaves them. So that's the cognitive overload, that they just aren't able to retain that information.
  • John: So good. So then, naturally then, how do we reduce cognitive overload for students?
  • Dr. Finley: Yeah. So for students, well, one thing I've noticed is that in any content area, there is a threshold concept, which means a really difficult, critical concept that you have to teach. Teachers over time, for example, realize that it's going to be a really hard day when they have to teach negative integers or teach symbolism or irony for the first time. These are threshold concepts that, as soon as the student gets through them to the other side, then they see that content in a different way that they could never undo. But that going through the threshold, there's a lot of resistance to that. So one of the things you could do is say, "So we're going to introduce this concept today and just know that students tend to struggle with this. So just know that I'm not counting on anybody being really clear when they walk out of class today. But trust me, over time, you'll become really clear on this." So just kind of telling them when to anticipate struggle and then asking them for their attention is helpful.
  • John: That's good.
  • Dr. Finley: Some other things like-
  • John: It connects to like ... Yeah, sorry, that pre-correction reminds me of that. What do they call it? Like errorless learning, when you're pre-correcting some of those pieces that you know might be in the way. So even just acknowledging that really can help them to learn. I just really want to put a spotlight on that piece that you shared and how critical that is, because we can do that in almost everything we do in teaching.

“...scaffolding is more about narrowing or reducing choices in the same way that for hikers you have a trail. It's a pathway for people to have success getting from one place to the next. So often that involves narrowing things. So an example of this, if you ask an adolescent, "How did your day go? Or what'd you do today?" Usually you'll get this monosyllabic response because they just ... It's just they're overwhelmed by the question. "What do I talk about? This one class? Like, what do I talk about?" But if you narrow the choices by saying, "Well, let's play the high low game. What was your high and low today?" Well, oftentimes they can answer that. This is a good thing. This is not a good thing. So scaffolding, narrowing, reducing choices is a way that we can have students with more and better working memory and help them learn more successfully.”

— Dr. Todd Blake Finley


  • Dr. Finley: It's true. I think because we are emotional beings, we're made out of feelings, it's really important that we acknowledge that students aren't just these academic things that come into class, that they have just tons of feelings that they have to learn how to manage. So it's our job to manage that. I just watched that documentary on Fred Rogers.
  • John: Yes. Powerful.
  • Dr. Finley: He was such an expert at ... Wasn't it? Yeah, I cried three times. But he was really good at naming the feelings and responding to it in a way that was very helpful. So that's our job as teachers.
  • John: Yeah. He was doing SEL way before SEL became a trend. He was such an early expert in that area. Yeah. When you say cried three times, I think I cried three to four times and I was watching it in the middle seat of an airplane, which was a lot of fun doing that. People are like, "What is going on?" It's like, "I'm watching Fred Rogers, you need to watch this too." That's awesome. Well-
  • Dr. Finley: For teachers, it's a really great model for how to do that. I think we need those models that we can look at and to emulate. Yeah.
  • John: Absolutely.
  • Dr. Finley: So there are a few other things we can do to help kids. So one of the things that I learned fairly recently is that if you have a handout that has critical information on it, try and keep it to one page, not one and a half pages, or one screen, not one and a half screens. There's something about switching to the next page that also interferes with working memory. Also, if you get a chance, do tests in the morning. We've known this for awhile, and Dan Pink's latest book called When is about this and how kids have decision fatigue late in the afternoon. So doing those important kinds of tasks or the harder tasks in the morning during elementary school is also the guide. Yeah.
  • John: So good.
  • Dr. Finley: Yeah. One thing also is just giving kids enough breaks, too. They definitely need breaks and energizers. And so, one of things I do is I'll have riddles that are just dumb dad jokes. Here's one. Why did Snap, Crackle, and Pop gets scared?
  • John: Why is that?
  • Dr. Finley: Because they heard there was a cereal killer on the loose. So stuff like that where the kids actually laugh at things is useful to just give them a break from the stress of learning.
  • John: So good. Well, I was just thinking too, in terms of the time, I know that one of the things that is so critical is there's the strategies for the students, but also a lot of times we say if we're going to really impact what we're doing with students around even the social emotional learning piece, which you've brought up, we have to do the adult work first. So I'm wondering too, even transitioning, if you had another idea there for students, but also what can teachers do when they find themselves experiencing cognitive overload? Because that never happens, right? It's like, no. So what could teachers do, as well?
  • Dr. Finley: Yeah. Well, I have this story of when I was a rookie professor at ECU, I had to teach Ed Psych, which I'd taken one course in or two courses in, and so I was so concerned about not giving valuable information that I've come to the tyranny of coverage. Which means you just feel like ... So I'd come into these classes just raring to implement all this kind of stuff and teach all this stuff. Really, learning is not , so that means we do need to slow down and it takes the time it's going to take. So if you kind of walk into a class and think, "Well, what's the one or two critical things that kids need to know by the time they walk out?" And just have sort of intentions on those one or two things, then that's going to be better for your sense of anxiety about just covering so much.
  • Dr. Finley: Also, I find that a lot of the interns that I work with and some teachers are inefficient with planning. So having a plan for how they're going to plan, for how long, where, and what do you do first, second, third? All of those things are important. And then also, I s aw something else that me too, which is switching in the different modes. So I remember like when I'd teach a night class for three hours, I'd come home from that and I'd walk into my house and my daughter and my wife would be having a quiet conversation on something and I'd just be all hyped up. I'd still be in sort of professor mode. And so after awhile, what I'd do is I'd put on a hat in my car which meant I was in dad mode. Just sort of be that a different way. So giving yourself signals that you're transitioning into a different way of being, because we're always in the sort of hyped up teacher mode all the time. That takes up a whole lot of energy and also dives into working memory and causes stress that way too.
  • John: That's great. Such good stuff. Well, how about this, let's close it out today. What is a final takeaway then for teachers, if any? As you close out today, what would be something that you'd share with them? A final takeaway?
  • Dr. Finley: Yeah. Well, let me just that might be sort of easy. Like something that simplified something for me. When I was learning how to scaffold instruction, I didn't know what that metaphor meant. And I knew that it helped to reduce cognitive overload, but what is it? You'd build a scaffolding on a building, for example? And I've sort of realized over time that scaffolding is more about narrowing or reducing choices in the same way that for hikers you have a trail. It's a pathway for people to have success getting from one place to the next. So often that involves narrowing things. So an example of this, if you ask an adolescent, "How did your day go? Or what'd you do today?" Usually you'll get this monosyllabic response because they just ... It's just they're overwhelmed by the question. "What do I talk about? This one class? Like, what do I talk about?" But if you narrow the choices by saying, "Well, let's play the high low game. What was your high and low today?" Well, oftentimes they can answer that. This is a good thing. This is not a good thing. So scaffolding, narrowing, reducing choices is a way that we can have students with more and better working memory and help them learn more successfully.
  • John: That's excellent. Well, Dr. Finley, I sure appreciate you taking the time to share with us today. This is fantastic and so many good nuggets. And I know that our listeners are going to appreciate it. And as I was looking, too, I just want you to know that I believe that at one point in your career, were you out here at the University of Puget Sound?
  • Dr. Finley: I was. Is that where you are?
  • John: Well, it's within probably 15 minute drive of where I'm sitting now, so I just want to say we're taking care of that area for you. We're grateful that you've been out in the Pacific Northwest at some point. But thank you for your work and for taking the time to be with us today.
  • Dr. Finley: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.

If you enjoyed this episode, please rate review and subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, & Google Play and also please feel free to share this page on social media

Share:

Character Strong

The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.