Media, Technology, and Education
Cluster PedagogyCOVID 19LearningLearning CommunityLearning Science

Failure to Learn

I have written before about the amazing Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (CPLC) that I and 70 of my colleagues have been working in this past year. As a finish to our year together, we asked each member of the community to (re)read one chapter of Josh Eyler’s excellent book, How Humans Learn, and post some thoughts about it. So that’s what I’m doing here.

I chose to reread Chapter 5: Failure. One of the things that I really like about Eyler’s book is its consistent focus on learning. This chapter is no exception. I think we tend to talk about failure in terms of assignments, exams, and other assessments. In other words, we tend to talk about failure in terms of grades. This chapter reminds us that what is really important is learning. After reading this chapter last summer, I now talk about this explicitly with my students. We talk about assignments and other formative assessments as opportunities to practice things they are learning. We talk about exams and other summative assessments as opportunities to demonstrate their learning. Through these conversations, I have come to realize that students don’t really understand the purpose of much of the work in a class beyond the assignment of grades. Not surprising.

This chapter on failure makes me think about the difference between failure to learn and failure to demonstrate learning. For example, a student might have learned a lot but fails to demonstrate that learning because of test anxiety or because their love interest broke up with them right before an exam. The lesson for me here is that our summative assessments should be varied. We should think about providing students with choice when it comes to demonstrating their learning.

There are many, many useful ideas and insights in this chapter. But rereading the chapter in these times, with such significant disruption in education and everyday life, the discussion about cognitive load really struck me as important. On page 192, Eyler writes, “Once an individual’s cognitive load crosses the threshold from challenging to overtaxing, learning is affected.” He goes on to explain two types of cognitive load: intrinsic cognitive load and extraneous cognitive load.

Intrinsic cognitive load has to do with the interaction between a student’s level of knowledge in the content area and the level of difficulty of the material they are being asked to learn. We talk about this in my game studies classes all the time because it’s an important factor in keeping people engaged with a game. If the skills that the player has for playing a game are far above the level of difficulty of the tasks presented by the game, the player will get bored and stop playing the game. This is why little kids eventually stop playing War and Candyland and Tic Tac Toe and so many other games of childhood. At some point, their skills are greater than the challenge presented by the game, so they stop playing. On the other hand, if the skills that the player has in playing a game are overmatched by the level of difficulty of the tasks presented by the game, the player will get frustrated and quit playing. The diagram below illustrates this idea.


This is why many video games have levels. The early levels are designed to teach people how to play the game and gain skills in playing so that they don’t get frustrated by not being able to make progress. The same is true of learning. Students may fail to learn because the material that is presented to them is so challenging that they aren’t able to incorporate it into their current mental models of the content area.

But the cognitive load concept that seems most appropriate to the times we find ourselves in is extraneous cognitive load. Extraneous cognitive load involves those things that exist in an environment that are not necessary for learning–in other words, distractions. On page 194, Eyler writes, “The key to successful intervention, then, is to minimize distractions as much as possible without affecting the quality of student learning.” He talks about technology use and creating accountability structures in the classroom related to its use. He also talks about students thinking about things tangentially related to the course content but which prevent a student from focusing their cognitive attention entirely on the actual course content. Their cognitive load is divided so that some of it is focus on extraneous things.

As I reread these pages, it occurred to me that many of our students currently have huge extraneous cognitive load. Our known world has completely changed in the last 3 weeks. Students are now taking all of their classes online. Most of them are living in places different than where they had planned to live. They have no physical access to our campus facilities like the library and printers and computer labs. Many of them have lost the jobs they relied on to be able to pay for college. Or their parents have lost their jobs. The myriad ways in which life today is different than it was 3 weeks ago are too numerous to fully articulate. This is a huge extraneous cognitive load for our students. It is understandable that some (many?) of them will fail to learn in this environment. It is to be expected. And it is irresponsible for us to not acknowledge this. And to find ways to deal with it compassionately.

The fact is that there have always been many students who have a huge extraneous cognitive load. When we return to more “normal” times, I hope that we will change our systems to incorporate the lessons we’re learning now about how to support students with a huge extraneous cognitive load.

Image credit: I created this graphic based on many game studies texts.


Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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