2: Learning and Tutoring

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1 Overview

This session is condensed, and could easily be turned into two sessions.

In this session I teach cognitive load theory. It is not the only learning theory around, but for the scope of this course most learning theories motivate the same conclusions and I find cognitive load theory to be a framework that computer scientists and engineers readily understand.

These lecture notes give only a high-level hand-wavy outline of the topics discussed in this session. It is wise to look at other resources for a better grounding before teaching this session.

2 One model of the brain

2.1 Schemata

Sketch a brain+eye looking at an object (I use a fish).

2.2 Load

To understand the importance of schemata, let’s consider memory. Memory can be categorized into three kinds:

Because working memory is small and where thinking happens, let’s consider what we put inside it. Our cognitive load can also be categorized into three kinds:

A central premise of Cognitive Load Theory: whatever part of you is not engaged in working or being distracted is learning, meaning automating the thinking you are engaged in at the time.

2.3 Intrinsic load and schemata

2.4 Therefore what?

Discussion: what does what we’ve shared so far suggest you should do as TAs?

(as ideas are suggested, tie each one back to topics discussed so far)

(in some order, either as part of the discussion or after it concludes, cover the following)

2.5 Expert blind-spot

3 Instructional Modality

(I usually erase the board before this topic)

Opening script:


This suggests the following kind of grade distribution for a visual-best topic (faked data for expository clarity):

auditory preference B B− A−
visual preference B+ C+ A


4 Analogy

(I usually erase the board before this topic)

One of the most powerful teaching tools is analogy. Analogy allows you to take advantage of schemata students already have as a basis point off of which to build the schemata you want them to have.


_______ is like _________
        except  _________


(note: I create analogies live during this exercise, and if they give me something too easy I do it again until I have to come up with something really odd. If you are not up to that kind of performance, preprepared analogies could probably work too, albeit without the this is possible evidence that live creation gives.)

5 Summary

One model of long-term memory asserts that the more times during a day you are called on to move an idea from short-term memory into working memory, the more likely you are to retain the idea in long-term memory. Thus, summarizing topics is a useful pedagogical practice.