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





To really understand this strategy we must learn more about Cognitive Load Theory.  This blog will highlight a few important facts about this powerful theory.



This section gives some information or evidence that inspired me.  And I want you to find something that inspires you!

1. Why I really like the Cognitive Load Theory

I don’t think I over exaggerate when I say that nearly every one of my referrals 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.  In 2010 I compiled a Mathematics Resource titled, “The Power of One Piece of Paper“.  I did this in a desperate attempt to support my referrals that struggled with Mathematics.

When I reflect today, I realize that my ‘gut feeling’ or common sense was right.  I was trying to ‘mimimise the irrelevant load and optimise the relevant load!’  My understanding of this theory helps me now to support my referrals better. That’s why I really like the cogntive load theory.

Like I was ignorant about Cognitive Load Theory more than a decade ago, many educators, professionals and parents are still unaware of this theory today.

2. So what is Cognitive Load Theory?

It 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).  It can therefore get overloaded and ‘jammed’ very easily. This happens 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 are powerful reminders.  They remind us that we must think a bit deeper about Cognitive Load. This is important 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.  As a result all three types can place demands upon our working memory.

Intrinsic Load refers to the complexity of the learning material/topic (or the skills) that must be learnt.  This load is 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 difficult long-division sum, with a lot of digits, is a good example of a task with 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. 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?

Our working memory can get overloaded very easily.  I therefore 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.  This include 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 therefore be taught and then 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 and courses), it is important that we try our utmost to:

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

Is this necessary and possible?

YES! It is necessary and very possible. It is important as the purpose of any form of instuction is:

  • To get the information into our working memory so we can process it.
  • Then the information must be transferred to our long-term memory.
  • For applicaton and use of the information it must be transferred back to our working memory.
  • When we have the information back in our working memory it is available for further application and use.

So 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.  There are thus hundreds of research studies available.  We can use these studies to empower us with more knowledge and skills.

In some of my other Blogs I am also focusing on various ‘Effects’, like the Split Attention Effect.  These effects play a role to either enhance or hamper the transfer of information from working memory to long-term memory and back to working memory.

Enjoy learning more!

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