Habits to Manage Cognitive Load for Students and Teachers

“Changing classroom practice is not about the process of knowledge acquisition but of habit change.” – Dylan Wiliam

Before becoming a teacher, one of my many odd jobs was as a barista at Caribou Coffee. The work was backbreaking, fast-paced, and incredibly stressful. The slightest mistake or delay during a morning rush with grumpy customers was devastating.

At first I was stuck on the register, in awe of the more experienced baristas who could make 3-4 drinks simultaneously while carrying on a friendly babble with their customers. I noticed these expert baristas had things in common which I now have the cognitive science language to name – they knew how to manage their cognitive load using ingrained routines and habits.

I will not pretend to be a firsthand expert in cognition or memory acquisition, but the best explanation and diagram I’ve seen yet is from Adam Boxer. He writes “increasing ‘task demand’ increases load, whereas increasing ‘available resources’ decreases load. Load, resources and demand are variables: they are things that can change, or be kept the same.”

Screenshot 2018-11-21 at 5.14.32 AM

As teachers, we are constantly managing the many variables of cognitive load to increase the effectiveness of our teaching and depth of our students’ learning. I think one of the best ways to manage cognitive load in classrooms is through the formation of valuable classroom habits. Harry Fletcher-Wood identifies the importance of routines and habits in his post What Makes Expert Teachers:

“Experts have automated many of their routines, allowing them to focus on the most important challenges…Kazemi et al. (2016) note the value of a limited repertoire of instructional activities, allowing teachers to focus on the content and student responses…We need to provide the tools novices need to automate simple, effective routines.”

Therefore, to bring cognitive load theory down to earth, I’ve collected the top four habits I use daily to manage the variables of cognitive load in my classroom – specifically by focusing on the development of students’ internal resources through retrieval, spaced and interleaved practice.

  1. Completing an answer key with exemplars for all day’s work before day begins. This has been a game-changer for lightening my own cognitive load. The clarity of my modeling and student questioning rises dramatically when I have an exemplar in front of me as an external resource. In addition, by doing the work students will complete beforehand, I can also notice and more clearly identify what knowledge and skills students must have to complete each task.
  2. Using retrieval to start every lesson, ending every lesson with summary. The classic “what did we learn about yesterday….last week….last month” can also be modified to include “what key terms did we learn yesterday…can someone give an example of this term?” I love to then remind students that every time we retrieve a memory, it becomes stronger. At the end of every lesson, I have students summarize their learning with the stem “Today I learned ________.”Screenshot 2018-11-21 at 5.17.06 AM
  3. Consistent lesson structure. My lessons follow a very consistent progression – a do now, then homework review, new lesson content with worked examples, guided practice with checks for understanding, and then independent practice. This consistent structure simultaneously reduces the difficulty of my lesson planning and allows students to receive lesson content in a predictable and consistent format.
  4. Multiple opportunities for “touches” on content through routine formative assessments with spaced and interleaved questions. I have set the routine of ending every lesson with a daily formative assessment using four boxes (see below). The first three boxes are spaced/spiraled questions from previous units that I have identified students needing more at-bats with. The final box is a check on what I taught that day – a small example of interleaving. I ask students to raise their hands when they complete all questions, and I then provide immediate feedback with either a check or circled mistake.


It really has completely shifted my perspective as a teacher to recognize habit formation as long-term investments in my students and classroom. These habits not only better maintain an optimal cognitive load in both students and teachers, they provide momentum to make it through the roughly 160-day school year.

My takeaway – utilize the power of routines and habits to manage cognitive load in the classroom. I think this quote from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is a perfect summary of why habits are every teacher’s best friend.

“Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment…habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks…The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.”

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6 thoughts on “Habits to Manage Cognitive Load for Students and Teachers

  1. I think sometimes our efforts to reduce extraneous CL sometimes reduce intrinsic CL inadvertently. We try to reduce clutter, distraction, extra information. We add problem steps, worked examples, and somewhere along the way the math is much less that it should have been. The four class routines you’re describing here feel to me like they’d reduce and preserve the right kinds of CL. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! As I was writing I worried I was giving the impression CL was a “bad” thing we must always reduce….rather, like you say, we should aim to manage extraneous load and preserve intrinsic load.


  2. Great article, but wondered what you do if students cannot recall what they learned. I would tell them the answer then have them repeat it to a partner or back to me. That way I could call on any student to respond. This is TAPPLE from Hollingsworth and Ybarra (2017).

    Liked by 1 person

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