George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

How to Increase the Cognitive Demand of Lessons

Tips for bringing students to that mental state where they’re so engaged with a task that they use all their mental resources and don’t notice time passing.

March 27, 2020
ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Getting clear on the distinction between rigor and cognitive demand can make a difference for each student in every classroom. Rigor is, roughly, complexity of thought, while cognitive demand refers to sustained mental taxation.

In other words, cognitive demand is holistic, and rigor is just one of its components.

A Common Pitfall of Aiming for Rigor

Imagine this: You open an application, and your computer executes the commands in the coding quickly and efficiently. Next, you open a more complex application, and your computer executes the commands with a slight delay. You conclude that the delay means your computer did something more difficult.

Now imagine an all-too-common, and very frustrating, scenario: You open a basic application, but since your computer is running functions in the background, you get an unexpected delay. Maybe you’re impatient—you click a few more times and the screen grays out. Many seconds later, 14 identical windows open. Now what do you conclude?

In the first scenario, the more complex application is what is typically meant by rigor in the classroom. A teacher makes an assignment more difficult, and students find it more challenging, so it takes longer. However, the second scenario points up several things the first misses. We get a false positive for rigor when we ask a computer to run an application while computing resources are already taxed. If time on-task (the computing delay) is our only measure for rigor, when students have a lot on their minds already, teachers may underestimate what they can really handle.

It gets worse from there. We may be able to keep the computer on-task for hours by feeding it the same function over and over. What happens when we try this with students? Assigning them more to do—or, worse, providing vague directions—delays task completion and only gives the appearance of rigor.

Students are not computers, of course, but if we’re not mindful of the way we engage them, they may do what computers do and shut down. Unlike computers, they may then refuse to start back up once we realize our error. We can avoid this trap and create better learning experiences for all students by shifting our focus to cognitive demand.

The Dials of Cognitive Demand

Cognitive demand is more than just rigor—it is that mental state a person experiences when they are so deeply engaged with a task that they use all of their mental resources and don’t notice time passing. How can teachers set up lessons that bring students to that mental state on a regular basis?

Think of the following design aspects as dials—they can be adjusted to optimize the cognitive demand of tasks so that students engage deeply and productively with course content rather than being overwhelmed or, worse, underwhelmed.

Preassessment: You need to know what your students know and are able to do before you can tell what will stretch but not break them. Also, kids stick with the hard stuff longer when they care about it. Using interest surveys and closely listening to students talk about their lives yield opportunities to tap into their natural curiosities and keep course content relevant.

Rigor: You can more accurately determine the level of rigor of a student task by first completing it yourself. In general, the more challenging you find it, the more rigorous it is. Time yourself and extrapolate reasonably.

Explicitness of task: Don’t mistake complicated for complex. Make sure your directions are precise and clear. Read your prompts to colleagues and students. Ask for and apply their feedback. Ambiguity and insufficient context are unnecessary obstacles that lead to lower student performance and subsequent teacher expectations.

Criteria for success: Students can’t hit targets they can’t see. Spell out exactly what you’re looking for, then make it visual. Include it again on the assignment page. Provide student work samples, and encourage innovation over emulation. Better yet, give an example, and build student buy-in by generating the scoring rubric collaboratively.

Differentiation: Students’ confidence and endurance soar with the right supports. When students have choices of process, product, and content, their sense of pride and accomplishment can push them to new heights. Tip: Make a curated set of resources accessible on demand so that students stay locked-in rather than searching for what they need.

Metacognition: Increase the likelihood that students will engage in productive struggle by explicitly repeating that the feeling of struggle is the feeling of learning. Post a troubleshooting guide prominently in your room so that students have a reminder of what to do when they get stuck. Level up by introducing a backchannel like Padlet for students to post in real time, so they can keep moving, confident that their question will soon be answered.

Uninterrupted processing and application time: Give students the time to process and ask questions, but once you set them to work, let them work. If you think of something you must communicate, post it somewhere in the room. If it’s truly necessary, they’ll notice. Tip: Experiment with background music to help students maintain focus on the work.

How do you know when you’ve got things right? The dials of cognitive demand don’t come with presets. However, if you collect and analyze data on student learning and then fiddle with these dials, you should see increased cognitive demand right away. And that will benefit all of your students.

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