Task complexity as a driver for collaborative learning efficiency: The collective working-memory effect

Kirschner, F., Paas, F., & Kirschner, P. A. (2011). Task complexity as a driver for collaborative learning efficiency: The collective working-memory effect. Applied Cognitive Psychology25(4), 615-624. doi:10.1002/acp.1730

This is an experimental confirmation of the expected task comolexity effect with regard to cognitive load. Specifically, high task complexity can be shared advantageously amongst multiple working memories, and collaboration proves to be beneficial, but with low task complexity, the cognitive load incolved in collaborating is too complex. Specifying the exact levels at which these effects occur is not necessarily easy – groups will be heterogenuous, their levels of expertise, and therefore element interactivity and resultant cognitive load will vary, making it difficult to measure.

Additionally, collaborations are messy and difficult things, and real world groups go off piste, off task and take tangents.

This speaks to the resource constuction. The simple tasks are solo, the complex tasks are shared. But the paper takes place in a formal, standardised, and face to face setting, and not an informal, unstructured, online setting. Hsiao et al are a better fit for Connectivist Contexts.

p622 Kirschner et al note that, outside of experimental contexts, where collaboration/communication can bbe kept on task, transaction costs – the cognitive load costs involved in communication to achieve collaboration – may be higher, due to off task communication.

They also note task complexity ( and hence cognitive load) is related to the person’s subject expertise, and varies from person to person. This, of cousre, makes it difficult to specify the task complexity for a group colaborating, and makes accurate predictions of tsak complexity, and related efficiencies difficult, if not perhaps functionally imnpossible. (p 622-623)

p622 Their research finds that “learners profited from having learned from high-complexity tasks in collaboration, while learners profited from having learned from low-complexity tasks individually”

It must be noted, however, that there may still be collaboration issues that are yet to be resolved. For example, to qwhat degree do varying levels of expertise within a group effect learning efficiencies, and cognitive load. There is possibly an increased load in assessing peer expertise, and peer need, as Hsiao have noted, but varying levels of expertise may also provide positive effects for some students ( the benefits of peer learning, and peer teaching).

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