Mind your modes

Effective communication in the classroom

Hey 👋

Happy Thursday. Hope you’ve been keeping those distraction wakes to a minimum. This week’s big idea wraps up our series on cognitive load with a dip into modality…

Big idea 🍉

How we communicate influences what gets learnt. As teachers, we must mind our modes. Let’s dive in:

Communication is a necessary and important part of teaching. However, the ways—or modes—though which we choose to communicate can have differing effects on student working memory, and as a result: their learning.

In the classroom, we typically communicate though a range of modes, such as:

  • Speech

  • Text

  • Diagrams/images

  • Video

  • Gesture (and other non-verbals)

With respect to cognitive load, each mode has its own pros and cons, which are mediated by the prior knowledge of our students.

For example, when we use speech in the classroom, students have to keep up with the pace of information flow, and must hold it all in their heads. By contrast, when we use text, (as long as they can read) students can process the information at their own pace, and revisit sections should they forget.

Which is why it's generally helpful to put instructions in text somewhere (on the board or on paper) so students don't have to hold them in their head while also executing them.

"CLT is a collection of instructional recommendations grounded in the science of how people learn."

— Ollie Lovell

Various combinations of modes also have benefits and disadvantages.

For example, we are able to attend to both speech and diagrams simultaneously, and so make more of our limited cognitive capacities. This is sometimes referred to as 'dual coding'.

However, the same does not apply for speech and text, which produces a 'split attention' effect where our minds partly focus on checking both sources for (in)consistency, at a cost to thinking about the ideas themselves.

This is why talking over relevant visuals is one of the most efficient ways to communicate in the classroom (as long as the diagram or image is relevant). And why reading aloud the notes on your presentation can be counterproductive (unless your audience struggles to read of course).

Optimising learning is partly about being mindful in selecting the 'best medium for the message' of our teaching. In short, we should strive to mind our modes.

Nuance → This should not be confused with selecting modes based on pupil learning preferences. We are more similar than different in how we learn, and the labelling of students in this way can be limiting.

Caveat → All of this is partly conditional on the prior knowledge of our students. For example, when learning a language, it can be helpful to read words on a slide. (here’s a strong take on reading aloud in class).

How intentional are you about your choice of mode(s) in the classroom? Is there anything you might try communicating differently in the future?


• We have a suite of communication modes.

• Each (and their various combos) has pros and cons.

• We should be intentional about selecting the best medium for the message.

Little links 🥕

Stay crunchy.

Peps 👊