Cognitive Load Theory explains why even the brightest minds have limited capacity for new information.      This Blog will briefly focus on what is Cognitive Load Theory, what are the different types of cognitive load,        and why it is so important to learn more about this theory.





Minimise the irrelevant load and optimise the relevant load!



1. Why I really like the Cognitive Load Theory

I don’t think I over exaggerate when I say that nearly every referral that I have worked with in the past two decades or more, have experienced challenges with cognitive load in some way.   I was not 100% up to date with the latest Cognitive Science research about a decade ago, but in 2010 I compiled a Mathematics Resource titled, “The Power of One Piece of Paperin a desperate attempt to support my referrals that struggled with Mathematics.  When I reflect today, I realize that my gut feeling was right.  I was trying to ‘mimimise the irrelevant load and optimise the relevant load!’ Like I was ignorant about Cognitive Load Theory more than a decade ago, many educators, professionals and parents are still unaware of Cognitive Load Theory today.

2. So what is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load refers to the amount of information that our working memory can hold together at one time. John Sweller, an Australian educational psychologist, developed Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) in the 1980’s.

Our working memory has limited capacity (especially for new information) and can get overloaded and ‘jammed’ very easily as we try to get new information processed and organized into our long-term memory.

The quote of Paul Kirschner as well as the title and strategy of this Blog therefore reminds us that we must think a bit deeper about Cognitive Load as there are different types of Cognitive load.

3. What are the different types of Cognitive Load?

Sweller describes three different types of cognitive load that can be placed upon our working memory.

Intrinsic Load refers to the complexity of the learning material/topic (or the skills) that must be learnt regardless of how that topic is presented. It refers to the number of elements that the learner must pay attention to and if these elements interact with each other. A complex multiple digit long-division sum is a good example of high element interactivity that will lead to a high intrinsic load.

Germane Load has to do with the demands placed on our working memory capacity that contribute directly to learning. It is the way the person uses their intelligence and memory to create schemas, to do or learn the task.  It is basically the activities relevant to learning. The process the learner uses when completing the long-division sum, is the Germane Load.

Extraneous Load refers to the way that new information is presented by a teacher or someone else. This load can restrict learning if the presenter of the information uses material that requires the integration of complex text and diagrams. Educators, professionals, or other instructors unintentionally often use materials or present information in a way that increases the extraneous cognitive load and then much of the learner’s cognitive capacity is used to try and understand the multiple sources of information. This then leaves minimal, if any, room for germane load (processing the information).

4. Why is it so important to understand Cognitive Load Theory?

As our working memory can get overloaded very easily it helps if we know about Cognitive Load Theory, especially if we provide some form of education. Educational systems or instructional systems deal with secondary knowledge (like reading, writing, doing maths, learning any subject in the curriculum or topic that anyone wants to learn about).  We do not just pick this knowledge up automatically – it must be taught and we need to learn it with deliberate effort.

So, if we are in a situation where we are providing secondary knowledge (via face-to-face teaching or online instruction/courses), it is important that we try our utmost to:

  • Minimize the intrinsic cognitive load
  • Minimize the extraneous cognitive load
  • Maximize the germane cognitive load

Is this necessary and possible?

YES! It is necessary and very possible because the purpose of any form of instuction is to get the information into our working memory so we can process it, and transfer it to our long-term memory and back to our working memory for further application and use.  The more we understand this process, the more we can facilitate this process. 

5. How can we learn more about Cognitive Load Theory?

The Science of Learning has increased drastically over the past decade or two and there are hundreds of research studies available that we can use to empower us with more knowledge and skills.

In the next few Blogs I am going to focus on various aspects (and ‘Effects’, like the Split Attention Effect) that play a role to either enhance or hamper the transfer of information from working memory to long-term memory and back to working memory.  

REAL Thinking & Learning about ‘How to Minimise the Irrelevant Load and to How to Optimise the Relevant Load’ will enable you to be More Effective with the Teaching of Secondary Knowledge.

Estelle Brettenny