Cognitive Overload

I have recently received a large amount of work from my students of international business that is very messy, very badly organised – pages in the wrong order, tables not fitting on the page, even pages upside down and at 90 degrees. I have been wondering why. Most of the students I am thinking of were second or third language speakers of English and there seemed to be an inverse correlation between English language competence and quality of presentation of work, but I do not think it is direct. It has reminded me of several other experiences I have had and I wonder if there is a connection.

Someone I know needed to take their UK driving test six times before they finally passed. They failed their first test for not showing sufficient care when turning right – remember we drive on the left in the UK so turning right on to a main road is difficult. The second time they failed for not showing sufficient care when turning left. The third failure was caused by not succeeding in the emergency stop. They failed the fourth time for not signalling in time before overtaking. All these seemed to be trivial matters and caused my friend to be annoyed. The first failure was accepted, but after the second failure, they said to me, “I have already proved I can turn left in my first test, so why did I fail for that reason in the second test?” After the third failure, they said, “I carried out my emergency stop well in the first two tests, why am I being failed on it now?”

Many years ago, I remember teaching a class focussing on language accuracy – vocabulary and grammar. In this case, when the class focussed on grammar, the students got the grammar right but got the word wrong. When the class was focussing on vocabulary, they got the word right, but forgot to inflect it.

And looking back, I think I noticed it when I was teaching mature beginners in Japan in the early 1970s. They couldn’t handle even, what i thought was, the simplest language. Getting the correct word, with the right grammar and good pronunciation, while looking at their colleague, was too much for them. We had to build it up slowly.

Are all these cases example of the same thing? Possibly what Schmidt (2001) referred to as attention. Is it that they are simply not paying attention to enough things and if so, why not? is it a matter of cognitive overload? Or lack of ability to multi-task.

Schmidt (2001) refers to attention as having a limited capacity that is used selectively (p 3), and as there is a limited supply of attention, “any activity that draws upon it will interfere with other activities requiring it” (p. 15). And as “one of the roles of attention is to control access to consciousness” (p. 17), and “attention is essential for the control of action” (p. 19), then it follows that if too much attention is paid to one aspect – turning left, getting the grammar right, proofreading the language, then attention cannot be paid to other aspects such as turning right, choosing the right word or making sure the pages are in the correct order.

This will be particularly true if, as Van Pattern (1990) concludes, different aspects of cognitive processing compete with each other and cognitively demanding tasks result in compromises being made, with one aspect losing out to another (Skehan, 1998).

So, in the case of the international business students I referred to at the beginning, their badly presented written work is not a simple result of their language competence, but the fact that they use so much of their cognitive abilities to get the content and the language right that they have no cognitive capacity left over for working on the presentation.  If this is the case, then, teachers need to reduce this cognitive overload by simplifying tasks by breaking large tasks – such as checking your work – into several smaller tasks – checking for organisation, checking for grammar, checking for spelling etc.

Since writing this, I have re-read the collection  Literacy by degrees  by G. Taylor, B. Ballard, V. Beasley, H. Bock, J. Clanchy & P. Nightingale. In the chapter by Hanne Bock (Bock, 1988), she explores the process of students coming to terms with the demands of academic writing. She says (p. 29):

The first two extracts show how a concentrated effort to come to terms with a new concept of writing increases the number of surface errors in the writing, and halts the flow, even to the extent of creating a blindness towards such obvious mistakes as the sequence ‘and has could be’ in the first attempt.

And Gordon Taylor (Taylor, 1988, p. 59), in the same collection, points out:

The student who can write well in his or her first year may begin to show linguistic signs of strain in succeeding years. The ability to handle grammar can deteriorate, it would seem, under the more rigorous, perhaps more subtle, and certainly more abstract demands of ‘higher’ studies in the same discipline. So if a tutor to third year students wonders why the poor English of some of them was not ‘picked up’ earlier on, it could well be that the symptoms were not at all obvious.

I think that’s what I am trying to get at.


Bock, H. K. (1988). Academic literacy: Starting point or goal. In G. Taylor, B. Ballard, V. Beasley, H. Bock, J. Clanchy & P. Nightingale (Eds.), Literacy by degrees (pp. 24-41). Milton Keynes: The Society of Research into Higher Education and The Open University Press.

Schmidt, R. (2001). Attention. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 3–32). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, G. (1988). The literacy of knowing: Content and form in students’ English. In G. Taylor, B. Ballard, V. Beasley, H. Bock, J. Clanchy & P. Nightingale (Eds.), Literacy by degrees (pp. 53-64). Milton Keynes: The Society of Research into Higher Education and The Open University Press.

Van Patten, B. (1990). Attending to content and form in the input: An experiment in consciousness. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 12, 287–301.

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