Tasks, tests and cognitive demands

Today a mix of cognitive psychology and research in language studies to see how they can apply to what we need to do in real life, whether at school or at work, in exams and tests, or simply in our common routines.

Most activities we do make cognitive demands on us, meaning that they require attention, memory or reasoning: watching the news, reading an article for its main point, checking the weather report, talking on the phone. But why take the trouble to think of that, if it’s part of the most common activities we do?

Well, for more pragmatic goals, preparing for a test mostly means that you need to know what the challenging areas might be. It could simply be a matter of studying and revising or practising properly, but it also involves anticipating which elements of the test, the way it’s designed, might give your brain more work to do. For instance, will you have to do the task alone? Will you have preparation time? Who will your partner(s) be? Will you need to do several things at the same time, like watching a video report and commenting on it? How much content will you need to process – a list of three options or one of ten options, a list of headlines or a collection of articles?

Those of you who are no longer in school and are not taking any exams in the foreseeable future, may still need to train someone, for instance a new colleague who you need to mentor for a while. You may have to teach someone how to handle a machine, how to run a project, how to talk and write to customers. If so, it surely pays for you to be aware how the tasks your “students” need to perform can be graded from less to more complex in terms of cognitive demands.

This short video relies on a reputable applied linguist’s framework (Peter Robinson’s triadic framework) for analysing the cognitive complexity of a task. In designing his framework, Robinson draws on findings from cognitive psychology and refers to tasks in foreign language learning, reaching conclusions for language teaching pedagogy. I find, however, that such an analysis of what makes a task complex can equally be applied to any kind of task, not just a language one and that the applicability of this concept goes way beyond pedagogy and classroom settings. That’s why I wanted to connect this research with real life, trying to show how its conclusions can actually be used by all of us.


About Simona Petrescu

I was born in Bucharest, Romania and studied English literature and linguistics. I taught English as a Foreign Language for over 18 years and specialised in professional communication and in Cambridge English exams. In 2011 I won the British Council / Macmillan Elton Prize for Innovative Writing with a course material pack of English for Human Resources. I have been living in Germany since 2008, where I am now dedicating most of my time to writing, both Professional English course materials and fiction. My interests lie in the area of language, communication strategies, learning psychology, but also literature, music and travel.
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