RAPID: Impacts of Unprecedented Shift to Online Learning on Students’ Cognitive Load and Readiness f

Mary Katherine Watson
Associate Professor
The Citadel

Need: Similar to other institutions of higher education, The Citadel shifted modalities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, face-to-face learning was replaced by emergency online instruction. Subsequently, a blend of online and face-to-face learning (“hyflex”) was employed in the 2020/21 academic year. Since Citadel engineering courses were solely offered face-to-face prior to the pandemic, we expected that students might experience an increase in cognitive load due to the modality shifts. Given that engineering curricula are interconnected networks of classes that build on prior prerequisites, cognitive overload imparted by changing modalities could have lasting impacts on student competencies. Guiding Questions: We sought to examine student experiences with changing modality through the lens of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), which characterizes learning as assimilation of knowledge into one’s long-term memory. When the cognitive load associated with an experience exceeds short-term (working) memory’s finite capacity, learning cannot occur. We sought to address: (1) To what extent did engineering course modality impact cognitive load? (2) Which groups experienced the greatest/least changes in cognitive load during changing modalities? Outcomes: We conducted a study to track perceived workload among engineering students throughout modality shifts caused by the pandemic. We measured workload (a surrogate for cognitive load) using the NASA Task Load Index (TLX), which allows participants to rate their workload along six dimensions: mental demand, physical demand, temporal demand, effort, frustration, and performance. The TLX was administered at several strategic times to capture workload associated with different modalities: (1) midterm of the Spring 2020 semester (face-to-face); (2) end of the Spring 2020 semester (emergency online; (3) beginning and end of the Fall 2020 semester (hyflex). At each administration, we also asked students about the challenges associated with each modality. Through non-parametric statistical analysis of TLX data and a priori coding of student responses, we have found that many aspects of workload were significantly higher for emergency online instruction, as compared to other modalities. Some groups, including women and academic juniors, may have experienced disproportionate increases in workload during emergency online instruction. In contrast, workload among non-traditional college-transfer students may have been least impacted. Some aspects of workload were higher among Black/African American students prior to the pandemic and remained high throughout modality shifts. Broader Impacts: The proposed work will provide important insights for using online education to provide continuity of engineering instruction during future crises, whether biological, environmental, or other. While the COVID-19 pandemic is the first disruption of its kind in the United States during the 21st Century, extreme weather events like flooding, tornados, and blizzards are now regular disruptors across the US. For example, the Citadel experiences annual closings or evacuations due to hurricanes and flooding that require students to be away from campus from days to weeks. Understanding students’ experiences and coping with this current shift to online learning could inform strategies employed by higher education institutions to better prepare for future disruptions and rapidly provide for educational continuity.


Elise Barrella, DfX Consulting, LLC; Kevin Skenes, The Citadel