504: How Complex Is Your Learning Environment?

July 5, 2010 Justin Miscellaneous

In one study, it was shown that rats who grow up in complex environments acquired an increased capacity to learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). A “complex environment” involves different tasks to perform at frequent intervals, new situations presented every day, and ultimately a rich set of experiences from which to draw information. Compared to rats who grew up in individual cages with limited stimuli, the animals from the complex environment, once introduced to a unique learning experience, performed better with fewer mistakes. With reward-based motivation, they even performed better on complex tasks. Interestingly, the animals from the complex environment had 20-25% more synapses per nerve cell in their visual cortices at the end of the study. The wiring in their brains had more connections than the individually-caged rats.

Now, just how closely these animal studies relate to humans is up for debate, and I recognize our students have quite a bit more advanced brains than mere rats. But how do you think our schools fare? Do we create “complex environments” involving a rich set of experiences from which our students can draw information? Or are we still stuck in the boring lecture rut, where students stare aimlessly at yet another meaningless PowerPoint while an instructor drones on about who-knows-what?

I’ve been redesigning our district’s online professional development portal, and it occurred to me that online learning can’t simply fall within the same routine pattern either. This is, of course, much easier said than done. It’s almost impossible to avoid if we’re providing self-directed, instructor-free classes, which has basically been the extent of our online learning delivery in the past. It can make formative evaluation less effective and difficult when direct interaction is not possible. Technology tools such as video conferencing could provide visual cues, and requiring the learners to produce reflective updates can illuminate personal growth, but there is something to be said about being in a physical classroom interacting with actual students in person.

On a related note, I’ve been reading and considering how adopting a cognitive load theory can influence how online learning is developed. Cognitive load theory refers to the “mental burden” of accomplishing various tasks. Think of it like the CPU of a computer. If you start loading up a ton of programs, the system is going to slow down because all the applications are hogging the CPU’s processing power. It’s the same idea here. The brain can only handle so much thinking at a time. The idea is to minimize the “cognitive load” on the learners. This isn’t to say that “cognitive load” is something that happens as instantaneously as a computer’s CPU, as the load can be spread out over time, but the solution is straightforward. Simplify the tasks, so to speak, by identifying different forms of instruction which have a similar effect on learning, and choosing the simplest one. As it relates to online learning, the “variability of problem situations encourages learners to construct cognitive schemas, because it increases the probability that similar features can be identified, and that relevant features can be distinguished from irrelevant ones” (Van Merrienboer & Ayres, 2005, p. 7). It’s a similar issue to the necessity of creating a complex environment. We want to create a variety of situations that will increase the chances that the learning will “take hold.” The focus should be on creating a variable environment to stimulate more learning opportunities.

One aspect that cognitive load theory implies for instructional design is that methods which work well for novice learners may have no effect, or even a negative effect on experienced learners (Van Merrienboer & Ayres, 2005, p. 8). This could provide a rather valuable insight to one of our district’s professional development events. In our yearly BrainBlast conference, the general goal is to provide workshop-based classes suitable for all learners. We do not let the participants choose their own classes. Instead, we randomly choose classes for them. We want to give teachers exposure to topics to which they may not initially see the value. The downside is that this necessitates a nonexclusive course design.

Our approach requires a trade-off, because if we accept the statement that teaching methods work differently for different levels of learners, the instructional effectiveness is stifled by the fact that we must resort to a limited set of general methods that we believe will work well for everyone. At the very least, in the coming years we should request all participants fill out a survey to determine their technological aptitude. Then our courses can be divided into different levels of learning (e.g. beginner, intermediate, advanced). Ideally, we would subdivide these into different skills our participants possess for different technology tools.

A complex learning environment does not refer to a situation where there is over-stimulation. We don’t want cognitive overload, after all. Learning should be reduced to the simplest cognitive form, but also provide complexity in the form of a diversity of learning stimuli and experiential opportunities.


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (pp. 102-116). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Retrieved from http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=6160&page=102

Van Merrienboer, J. J., & Ayres, P. (2005). Research on cognitive load theory and its design implications for e-learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(3), 5-13.

cognitive load, edtech504, learning, theory,

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