Element Interactivity in the Classroom

As a teacher who really loves and appreciates the nuts and bolts of instruction, element interactivity is a very interesting concept.  It is alarming that I’ve been teaching for over a decade and, until this year, never heard of or participated in professional development on the topic.  Its implications for instruction are quite significant and widely applicable. Element interactivity should definitely be considered when teachers plan for presentation of information in the classroom.  

A couple of terms and definitions:

Element – anything that needs to be learned or processed, or has been learned or processed (58).

Interacting elements – elements that must be processed simultaneously in working memory because they are logically related (58).

To understand element interactivity, one must understand some basic structures of memory.  Here is an image that touches on the framework:

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 6.32.31 AMBy Erich Parker [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

While long-term memory is limitless, working memory has  limitations in the amount of elements it can temporarily process.  Working memory is the primary structure that processes incoming information from the environment (42).  This may be information that is currently being heard/seen or material that has been recalled/retrieved from long-term memory.  From Cognitive Load Theory (2011):

“While there is universal agreement that working memory when dealing with novel information is very limited in capacity, the exact limits have been open to some discussion, probably because those limits change slightly depending on the testing conditions.  Miller (1956) suggested that the limit was about seven items but more recently Cowan (2001) suggested about four items was a more representative figure. From an instructional perspective, the exact figure is probably irrelevant because the important point is that working memory is severely limited in its ability to store information.”  (42)

Instruction should take into account the facts that working memory is limited in its capacity and duration, and that it is the processing of what is being currently sensed.  If the learning environment is overrun by needless distractions, precious amounts of working memory is used to process information that is not necessary to learn the class material.

Now…back to element interactivity.

The material to be learned can have low or high amounts of element interactivity.  Again, an element is anything that needs to be learned or processed and the interactivity relates to how reliant one element is on other elements for comprehension.  So, for example, learning that cone cells are necessary for color vision has a very low level of element interactivity. But, learning that, according to the Young-Helmholtz trichromatic theory of color vision, cones are sensitive to either red, blue, or green wavelengths of light and how transduction occurs at the retina and this information is passed to bipolar cells and then to ganglion cells whose axons form the optic nerve and send the millions of bits of information to the thalamus…you get the picture.  There’s a lot going on there and much more element interactivity to understand the process of vision than simply knowing one seemingly stand alone fact.

How should knowledge of element interactivity affect the learning environment?  

The higher the inherent level of element interactivity, the more working memory capacity that will be occupied with elements necessary for understanding.  However, if that limited capacity is occupied with irrelevant information from the environment (distractions from other students and/or phone, complexity of instructional strategy, etc.), working memories’ ability to attend to the pertinent material will be compromised.  And since the differing elements are reliant on each other for understanding, it is imperative the material be presented in an environment as focused, organized, and free of needless visual and auditory clutter as possible.

What does this look like in the classroom?  

In my classroom, this equates to very clear lecture/presentation of specific concepts (like the process of vision) before moving on to more collaborative exploration of the topic.  I am not saying creativity with the subject matter isn’t important, but the knowledge must first be acquired. Element interactivity tells me the most effective and efficient manner for gaining this concomitant knowledge is very straightforward and simplistic with respect to sensory information.  

A few questions for you to ponder:

How might teachers best use element interactivity when planning for instruction?

How can you use this information to improve learning in your classroom?


Please see the following book for more information about this topic.  A vast majority of the information (including all terms, definitions, and quotes) in this post originate from this text.

Sweller, J., Ayres, P., & Kalyuga, S. (2011). Cognitive Load Theory. New York City, NY: Springer.

5 thoughts on “Element Interactivity in the Classroom

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  1. This has me thinking about the timing of certain kinds of learning, like dropping a higher order thinking learning activity (like an essay) during homecoming week when you have a bunch if ASB students on your roster probably isn’t the best.

    This also explains why my students can’t get much higher order thinking done in first semester as they can in second semester, considering that they are building routines and learning new knowledge, and need their brains freed up for those important and integral tasks.

    This would be great for young teachers. I had to reach those conclusions based on a decade of experience without science-words to help me understand what was happening.

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