Intellectual Load – The Student Experience

“Intellectual load” as applied to website design refers to the  extraneous thinking and decision-making caused by poorly organized, inconsistent web page layout and functionality. I would like to apply this concept to the college student experience.  I  extend the definition of intellectual load to include the totality of decisions, problem solving, and just plain searching per some unit time required of students by their university and I will assume that a student has a limited capacity for dealing with this load.  Thus,  the minimization of unnecessary intellectual demands is an important  goal – important because we are likely to retain more students and because it is the humane thing to do.

On a first level, having effective websites and transparent simple procedures for registering for classes, changing classes, paying bills, etc. would reduce a student’s intellectual load and save them time – time that would be better spent studying.  This is a known problem, often unaddressed.  Just check any random universities website with a specific question in mind.

The second level, entails the intellectual load imposed by varying academic standards across campus.  Often students have to think through what is acceptable in different courses – typed or handwritten, polished or rough, spelled correctly or who knows, all steps shown or the important ones or none.  One gets the sense that students sometimes are just testing for the particular course’s standards or worst, disregarding said standards – still a choice. If the faculty, even by department, spoke as one voice, students’ intellectual load, and for that matter stress, would decrease.

There is a third level that I am exploring this term.  I  teach college algebra to a cohort of students that are taking both introductory biology and chemistry.  I have reordered my curriculum so that I am going over the math that I know they will be using at the same time in their labs and on their exams.  For instance, teaching straight line math early, using significant digits and decimal calculations early and consistently, and making up examples that come directly from their labs using the same units.  If one thinks about it, most math students in precalculus and higher will not be math majors but will be STEM majors.  This sharing of common problems among the disciplines can only help reduce a college student’s intellectual load.  Looking over biology and chemistry labs and seeing  the keys for their exams have given me good examples and changed the way I discuss issues in class.  No longer just “You will see this technique in calculus class” but “The behavior of this graph will be important in your spectrometer lab”.  I now know, even, that mixture problems in algebra II are much more important than the usually phrased motion applications.

I also see the glimmer of a fourth  level.  Thinking as such is not usually taught on campus, at least,  in the sense of Thinking  in Bets by Annie Duke and How to Think by Alan Jacobs.  These thinking skills and sensibilities apply to all disciplines and also to life.  Using their structure to teach introductory critical thinking and problem solving in all programs would reduce a student’s intellectual load.  We know that skills often don’t transfer across disciplines but they might if we work at it.


About jrh794

I am a sixty-five year old math instructor at Southern Oregon University. I taught at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed California for twenty-six years. Prior to that I worked as a computer programmer, carpenter and in various other jobs. I graduated from Rice University in 1967 and have a MS in Operations Research from Stanford. In the past I have hand-built a stone house and taken long solo bicycle tours. Now I ride my mountain bike and play golf for recreation.
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