1 Reducing extraneous load

Extraneous load is the enemy of learning. This leads to a question:

Is it better to be

  1. an entertaining TA?
  2. a boring TA?
Click to see my answer

Neither is good. Entertaining TAs draw attention to themselves and become extraneous load. Boring TAs cause attention to wander and invite extraneous load.

In education, we often talk about being engaging, meaning capturing attention but not keeping it: instead, directing it to the topic at hand. The best way to be engaging is a matter of debate, not consensus.

While extraneous load is a complicated topic, there are some tips to share:

1.1 Don’t be distracting

Don’t let yourself become an invitation to engage in extraneous load. Don’t wear clothing with divisive or distracting messaging. Don’t flirt or dress in an erotic manner. Don’t talk too load or too softly. Try to match your accent to the dominant accent at UVA. Fit in.

But what if you are proud of your differences and what makes you you? We’re proud of you too, and some differences are not distracting, but try not to take those that are to work with you. This is a job, and jobs have dress codes and codes of conduct: the dress code and code of conduct for a TA is try not to be distracting.

1.2 Reduce stress

My favorite working definition of stress is

Stress is wasting time thinking about how stressed you are.

A more biological definition based on stress hormones diverting resources from unessential functions (like cognition) toward survival functions (like protecting your vitals and getting ready to flee or defend yourself) has a similar end result: excessive stress reduces your available working memory.

Reducing stress is a complicated topic, but one tip to recall is that the brain reacts to the body. If you relax your muscles, un-hunch your shoulders, and take a slow deep breath, then your brain will often notice that your body is not acting like it is threatened and the production of stress hormones is reduced. Inviting students to take a moment and relax, or more than a moment and take a break, can be helpful, provided it is accompanied by a sense of confidence.

1.3 Provide confidence

Students often use some of their working memory trying to figure out if the things they are doing will be effective or not. This extraneous load can be significantly reduced if you, as the TA, will give them confidence and a safety net. Do this and you’ll figure it out. If not right away, and I’ll be here for you for the next step. Don’t worry.

2 Managing intrinsic load

Cognitive overload occurs when the tasks the student is attempting to do requires more working memory for its intrinsic load that the student actually has. When facing cognitive overload, not only is there no memory left for germane load, and thus no learning; there is also no memory left to actually finish the task, and thus no progress.

2.1 Recognizing cognitive overload

Because the conscious mind is overwhelmed, reactions to cognitive overload are controlled by the subconscious and tend to fall into one of three categories:


When you ask your mind to do something beyond its capabilities, it hurts itself trying and then seeks reprieve.

This might look like a thoughtless zoned-out blank stare, daydreaming, off-topic ramblings, browsing the web, playing a mindless game: the common thread is it is something the overloaded mind can do without much cognitive effort.

A similar symptom also shows up as a form of TA manipulation, as we’ll discuss in a coming week. Knowing which is which takes practice.


Your schemata compress and simplify the world, throwing away details and providing higher-level abstractions to think with. But they don’t start off very good at this: your older, better-established schemata make the world simpler than your newer, yet-fragile schemata. To shrink a too-big task, the brain might revert to older schemata that shrink the world more than the newer ones do.

This might look like a student acting like they don’t know what you know they did know just moments or days before.

A similar symptom also shows up when an idea didn’t make it into long-term memory or when the schemata formed was incorrect and just happened to look right in the previous examples. Knowing which is which takes practice.


Most people use a portion of their working memory paying attention to, interpreting, and formulating appropriate responses to social cues. Sometimes an overloaded brain tries to eek out a little more working memory by shutting down the be polite process.

This might look like a student being mean, insulting, inarticulate, etc.

A similar symptom also shows up as a form of TA manipulation, as we’ll discuss in a coming week. Knowing which is which takes practice.

2.2 Managing cognitive overload

Recognizing cognitive overload is only useful if you have something to do about it. Two common reactions all educators tend toward are actually counter-productive; let’s discus each, and what to do instead:

Go back, not go again

When a student experiences cognitive overload when attempting task X, it is common to try to explain X again. However, this is generally counter-productive: the problem is not X itself but rather the lack of sufficiently robust schemata for the topics that lead up to X.

Instead, go back and review the building blocks. Help them un-regress by pulling those not-yet-robust schemata back into their short-term memory so they have the tools needed to tackle the problem at hand.

Road-map, not next step

When a student is struggling to do some task, it is common to try to get them going by prompting them with the next step they need to take. However, this is generally counter-productive in two ways. First, a too-big problem minus one step is generally still too-big. Second, it is likely the next TA will do the same, giving them the next step, and then another TA the next, and then when you come back again you’ll see them having made several steps of progress and give them one more step, and the next thing you know the student had a chain of TAs do the whole task without learning anything along the way.

Instead, help make the problem smaller. If the whole task is too big, show them how to split it in half, then tell them that if they do this first half, ignoring the second for now, they’ll reach the goal they are seeking. Half of a too-big problem is often small enough to handle, and no part of the problem (and its corresponding learning opportunists) was removed so no number of TAs doing this will remove the student’s chance to learn.

3 Listen before speaking

Educational theorists often refer to expert blind spot, which I summarize as follows:

  • Because you have schemata your students don’t, you don’t do your class’s work the way they do.
  • Back when you didn’t have those schemata, you needed all your cognitive laod to do your work and didn’t have spare load to reflect on and remember how you were doing it.
  • Ergo, you don’t know how your students think.

Expert blind spot is inevitable, in every discipline, and means that to understand student thought you have to study students: having once been one is not enough.

By far the most important element of studying students is to listen before you speak. And I mean actively listen: hear them, think about what the thing they said likely means they don’t understand, then ask a question to make sure you got it right, then another question to make sure you are really on the right path, and only then trying to offer an answer.

Answering questions that were not the student’s question is a recipe for students disengaging, getting confused, feeling cognitive overload, and becoming stressed. It is worth time and effort to avoid this.

4 Short-term Memory

Remember the three kinds of memory: long term, which is what we are trying to build; working, which is what we have to work with; and short-term? What were we as educators supposed to learn from knowing about short-term memory again?

4.1 Repeated use = survival

Your brain is continually removing some ideas from short-term memory to make room for new ideas, and ideas that get removed never make it to long-term memory. They best way to keep an idea in short-term memory long enough to learn it is to exercise it: that is, bring it in and out of working memory repeatedly, and in slightly different ways each time.

A simple practice that can help with this is to review. After concluding a tutorial and feeling like the student has learned, briefly summarize the high points of what was discussed.

4.2 Paper/board as memory extension

There is great value in having something visual the student can refer to to prompt their memory. You and they can point to ideas for rapid recall; they can glance over it to see what they might have forgotten; etc. A piece of paper is a great short-term memory extension.