Blending activities of cognitive ease and cognitive strain: A balanced recipe to better engage students in classrooms

By: Shankar Munusamy, BPharm, MS (Pharm), Ph.D. & Michael Nelson, BS Pharm, Ph.D.

According to Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-winning behavioral economist, our mental state can be divided into cognitive ease and cognitive strain. This is based on the amount of energy spent by our brain on any given task1.  Activities that require information processing with less mental energy and avoid a shift in our attention facilitate our mind to enter a mental state of cognitive ease. In this state, our mind is more creative and intuitive; however, it is also prone to bias as our ability to think logically is limited. In contrast, engaging in activities that involve critical thinking and problem-solving, which consume higher amounts of mental resources, promote cognitive strain, the mental state in which our mind is less creative but more rational.  For example, the mental state of deciding to buy stocks based on advice from a stockbroker is cognitive ease, whereas researching stocks before buying is a cognitive strain. 

From a teaching perspective, traditional (didactic) lecturing is designed to present complex facts in a conscientiously organized manner to facilitate understanding. On the flip side, this approach negates the need for a shift in students’ attention toward critical analysis and consolidation of the material presented. Hence, traditional lecturing is more likely to promote cognitive ease than cognitive strain. While educators attempt to articulate information by organizing and engagingly presenting information, they unintentionally forgo the opportunities for subjecting students into cognitive strain, the state in which their logical thinking and problem-solving skills are fully engaged. An effective way to circumvent this limitation is to create periods of cognitive strain within the traditional lecture. This can be accomplished by using an audience response system (e.g., Poll Everywhere, Socrative, Kahoot), or a collaborative learning activity such as think-pair-share, as these would require students to analyze and reflect on the learned material2. Another way to interweave periods of cognitive strain in didactic lectures is to adopt interactive, Socratic-style teaching, which involves asking questions that stimulate critical thinking, followed by providing information that answers the question3.

On the other hand, by intent, active learning methods promote cognitive strain. Although this is a healthy outcome for students to experience, active learning methods utilize significantly high amounts of mental energy. Hence, if an educator is considering a pedagogy that is entirely active, we suggest relieving periods of cognitive strain (produced by active learning) with periods of cognitive ease to create a balanced learning experience. A good example of this concept is the use of mini-lectures within the active and collaborative learning strategy of Team-Based Learning (TBL). In brief, TBL holds students accountable for learning foundational facts and concepts before the class. Students are held accountable to themselves and their team by the administration of first an individual and a subsequent identical team test (individual readiness assurance test, or i-RAT, and team readiness assurance test, or t-RAT, respectively), followed by working in their teams to apply their pre-class preparation to solve relevant complex problems simultaneously with other teams in the class (i.e., “application activities”). These relentless periods of cognitive strain may be broken up with a period of cognitive ease by delivering a mini-lecture or asking students to watch a video or an animation, most often in between the readiness assurance process and application activities. In our experience, these periods of cognitive ease provided by mini-lectures and instructor feedback prescribed by TBL methodology4 serve not only to bridge the knowledge gaps but also as a “mental breather” that promotes student comfort with the course material and the TBL methodology. When structured intentionally, students who would otherwise be in a state of 100% cognitive strain would perceive the periods of cognitive ease to benefit their overall learning and comfort as they help students consolidate and verify accurate learning. 

In summary, we suggest interweaving activities that promote cognitive strain in traditional didactic lectures, and conversely, incorporating activities that promote cognitive ease when active learning methodology is the primary pedagogy. This would help educators improve student learning and engagement in classrooms. Also, investigating the hypothesized benefits of interweaving cognitive strain with cognitive ease is an area of potential research.

Table 1: Examples of classroom activities that would promote cognitive ease and cognitive strain among students

Activities that promote
Cognitive Ease
Activities that promote Cognitive Strain
Attending didactic lectures that
present information in an
easy-to-understand format
Attending lectures that follow Socratic-teaching
Mini-lectures and instructor
feedback as part of TBL exercises
Taking i-RAT and t-RAT and solving complex problems in TBL activities
Watching animations and
pre-recorded lectures 
Researching learning issues as a member of problem-based learning (PBL) team
Listening to the frequently repeated information in lectures and instructor’s explanation in discussion sessionsResponding to application-based questions via audience-response systems
Note-taking and highlighting
information on lecture handouts
and slides
Comparing and contrasting closely-related concepts (e.g., Think-Pair-Share)

 Acknowledgments:

This article is inspired by the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. The authors greatly appreciate Dr. Craige Wrenn for his valuable comments and suggestions on this commentary. 

References:

1. Kahneman D. Thinking, fast and slow. 1st ed. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2013.

2. Yang BW, Razo J, Persky AM. Using Testing as a Learning Tool. AJPE. Nov 2019;83(9):7324.

3. Oyler DR, Romanelli F. The fact of ignorance: revisiting the Socratic method as a tool for teaching critical thinking. AJPE. Sep 2014;78(7):144.

4. Farland MZ, Sicat BL, Franks AS, Pater KS, Medina MS, Persky AM. Best practices for implementing team-based learning in pharmacy education. AJPE. Oct 2013;77(8):177.

5. Immordino-Yang MH, Christodoulou JA, Singh V. Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education. Perspect Psychol Sci. Jul 2012;7(4):352-64.


Shankar Munusamy is an Associate Professor of Pharmacology at the Drake University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Educational scholarship interests include active learning strategies, assessing the impact of mnemonics and analogies on reducing cognitive load, and the effect of mindfulness strategies used in the classroom on students’ mental health. In his free time, Shankar engages in cognitive ease by listening to Indian music and cognitive strain by singing Indian songs using Karaoke apps on his mobile.

Michael Nelson is a Professor and Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at the Drake University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Educational scholarship interests include measuring the impact of implementing collaborative learning strategies such as team-based learning (TBL) and assessing outcomes related to student services. In his free time, Michael engages in cognitive ease by distance running and cognitive strain by strategy-based video gaming.


Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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