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Work in Progress: Re-Interpreting Engineering Laboratory Literature Through the Lens of Cognitive Load

By Gregory Wickham, Matthew Spencer

This WIP theory paper argues laboratory and engineering project classes can produce high cognitive load by pursuing many learning objectives at the same time. It further argues that courses where students work in teams are particularly prone to producing high cognitive load because the interdependence required to produce positive group dynamics necessarily creates higher cognitive load.

This argument is rooted in literature that articulates the learning objectives of laboratory classes and suggests that laboratory activities can pursue many learning objectives at once. This is combined with a review of cognitive load literature to suggest that large numbers of learning objectives can contribute to cognitive load. Other literature on engineering group projects reveals that group work can produce cognitive load in its attempts to foster interdependency, and that this can result in maladaptive team behaviors like specialization and attentional narrowing.

In response to these observations, this paper seeks to define features of laboratories that can trigger this cognitive-load-based loss of learning. It suggests future experimental and theoretical work to define these features.