Cognitive load theory: what is it?


Cognitive load theory is a term which is increasingly being used in schools and teachers throughout the country.

Cognitive load theory was developed in the late 1980s out of a study of problem solving by John Sweller.

Sweller is an Australian educational psychologist, he is a contributor to both research and debate on issues associated with human cognition (how we all think), its links to evolution by natural selection, and the instructional design consequences that follow.

In this article, we provide a summary of cognitive load theory, how schools and teachers can practically apply it and link to a range of resources.

What are the basic principles of cognitive load theory?

Essentially ‘cognitive load’ is the amount of information our working memory can hold at any given time. The working memory is where we process information and is key to learning.

Three types of working memory

To support pupils to learn more effectively we want to reduce demand on pupils’ working memory. There are three types of working memory:

  1. Intrinsic load: this means how complex a task is. If a task or problem is really complex then it can take over most of our working memory. If a task is simple, it uses less working memory
  2. Extraneous load: these are the instructions you are given or how questions are written. Incomplete instructions take up space in working memory and don’t help you learn
  3. Germane load: this is the amount of work you put in to create a permanent store of knowledge

Teachers can support pupils by reducing intrinsic load, reducing extraneous load and enhancing germane load. Practical ways which can be used in the classroom include:

  • Chunking, goal-free questioning, use of worked examples and scaffolding to reduce intrinsic load
  • Avoiding split attention, use of dual coding, avoiding unnecessary distractions to reduce extraneous load
  • Building on prior knowledge, constructing schema and building retrieval strength to enhance germane load

Top 10 tips for pupils

PIXL has published top ten tips for pupils to apply cognitive load theory when learning new information:

  1. Break the problem down into parts. This reduces the problem space and lightens the cognitive load, making learning more effective
  2. Look at worked examples to understand how to complete tasks
  3. Take advantage of auditory and visual channels in your working memory
  4. Start with learning simple information and build on it
  5. Create an environment with as few distractions as possible so turn off your phone, music or the TV. Distractions add to your working memory
  6. Avoid overloading your brain with too much information at one time
  7. Always review information from your lessons as you go along because this will help improve your retention and add knowledge to your long-term memory
  8. Focus on one task at a time
  9. Rehearse the components of a complex task so that it becomes automated, thus freeing up working memory capacity
  10. Create stories from information to be remembered or group information into more memorable categories or more accessible chunks

If you would like to learn more about cognitive load theory we have published another article looking at what CPD school staff are required to receive.

Cognitive load theory: further reading

Was this article helpful?

The information contained within this article is not a complete or final statement of the law.
While Edapt has sought to ensure that the information is accurate and up-to-date, it is not responsible and will not be held liable for any inaccuracies and their consequences, including any loss arising from relying on this information. This article may contain information sourced from public sector bodies and licensed under the Open Government Licence. If you are an Edapt subscriber with an employment-related issue, please contact us and we will be able to refer you to one of our caseworkers.