Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory
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Teaching requires more than presenting information. Teaching is a joint venture with a student to pass on information in a way that can be integrated into their existing store of knowledge. As a young father, I ignorantly thought I just needed to give my children information, share the wealth of my knowledge, and they would benefit from the wisdom. Beyond the material, teaching is impacted in many other ways. One of those factors is cognitive load. John Sweller developed the cognitive load theory in the 1970’s to assist teachers create a better environment for learning.

My early attitude on teaching was woefully wrong in two ways. First, I was wrong about the depth of my knowledge, and second, I misunderstood the process of transferring knowledge.

Cognitive load theory is the product of research into the role of human cognition in learning. Basically, cognitive load theory is an instructional theory based on our knowledge of human cognition. Because cognitive load theory uses understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of human cognitive architecture, teachers can better generate experimental, instructional effects, to maximizing the learning process.

John Sweller wrote, “while cognitive load theory is not unique in using human cognition to generate instructional procedures, it is regrettably rare for instructional design to be based on human cognitive architecture” (2011). 

The fundamental concept driving the formation of cognitive load theory is that “without knowledge about the human architecture, the effectiveness of instructional design is likely to be random” (Schnotz & Kürschner, 2007).

What is Cognitive Load  Theory?

Cognitive load theory is based on a number of widely accepted theories describing how our brains process and store information.

These theories describe a process of information acquisition through sensory data, interpreting new data in working memory, and storing new configurations in long-term memory. Interpreting data is a complex process of pulling relevant information from long-term memory and integrating known facts with new data.

Working memory, however, is limited in capacity and can become bogged down, interfering with  smooth acquisition of new knowledge. The basic premise of  cognitive learning theory states that a major reason for ineffective problem solving is the process requires overlapping cognitive processes requiring large amounts of cognitive processing capacity which then leaves limited resources for schema acquisition. And, according to the theory, “domain specific knowledge, in the form of schemas, is a major factor distinguishing experts from novices in problem-solving skills.”

​Human memory consists of two basic forms: working memory and long-term memory. The information stored in long-term memory takes the form of schemas. 

John Sweller further explains, “differences in memory of problem states, strategies used and categories into which problems are placed can all be explained by assuming that experts have acquired schemas which play a crucial role in the way in which they approach and solve problems” (1988, p. 259). These schemas relax the demands on working memory when learning new material.

Cognitive load theory argues that “traditional instructional techniques of not adequately take into account the limitations of the human cognitive architecture,” overloading the “learner’s working memory,” creating a “bottleneck” to their higher cognitive processes ​(Schnotz & Kürschner, 2007).

​Cognitive load theory devises “cognitive effective and efficient instructional procedures” that are based upon the human cognitive architecture (Kirschner, Sweller, et. al., 2018).

History of Cognitive Load Theory

John Sweller began the development of cognitive load theory in the 1970’s. He explained in his seminal paper on cognitive load theory that “for most of this century, many theorist and educational institutions have placed a heavy emphasis on this ability (problem solving), especially in mathematics and science (1988).

Sweller was referring to the highly popular equation. Give the student a problem, and have them solve the equation to obtain the answer (x – 10 = 20, solve for x). Sweller found that students could solve these problems but were utilizing what he called a ‘means-end strategy’ to arrive tat the solution.

Teachers were in effect saying, “here’s the problem, here’s the method for solving, now find the solution.” Sweller explained that “this aspect of the problem structure could only be readily induced if considerable information was implicitly or explicitly provided” (1988).

“It was concluded that conventional, goal directed search heuristics such as means-ends analysis, while facilitating problem solution, could frequently prevent problem solvers from learning essential aspects of problem structure” ​(1988).

Goal Free Problems

​Sweller designed goal-free problems, with the objective of having students learn underlying schemas instead of solutions to problems. “When solving goal-free problems, students are simply asked to calculate the value of as many variables as they can.” Schnotz and Kürschner explain that “in contrast to means-ends analysis, this strategy requires nothing more than considering each problem state encountered and finding any operator that can be applied to this state” (2007). 

Students learned considerably better to solve transfer problems from goal-free problems than from traditional problem solving (Sweller & Levine, 1982). Sweller explained these findings through the impact of different types of problems on the student’s cognitive load. If problems overloaded short term memory with unnecessary information then the student was not able to transfer important information to long-term memory, thus learning did not take place.

What is Cognitive Load?

Cognitive load refers to any demands on working memory and storage. Since working memory is a limited resource, overloading working memory with unnecessary information will interfere with the process of retention of information in long-term memory.

“Cognitive load refers to the total working memory resources required to carry out a learning task” ​(Kirschner, Sweller, et. al., 2018).

​Cognitive load theory defines three types of cognitive load.

Load Intrincic to Learning

Load caused by the intrinsic nature of the learning task. Intrinsic load is caused by the natural complexity of the information to be processed. Intrinsic load differs between individuals depending on their experience. A new learner may have to hold several new concepts in working memory in order to complete a task. However, expertise may eliminate some of the elements creating cognitive load. 

Extraneous Load

Extraneous load is caused by the format of the instruction. This load is all the unnecessary information irrelevant to the intrinsic information being taught. Often, in an effort to make intrinsic information more palatable, teachers will dress it in so much extraneous information that the intrinsic information is lost in the noise of the teaching format. 

The teaching format may keep the students attention but fail to teach the necessary material.

Germane Load

A concept added to cognitive learning theory in the 1990’s was germane load. Engaging in conscious cognitive processing directed at the construction of schemata increaces the cognitive load. However, the construction of schemata leads to expertise, lightening cognitive load in the future for continued learning. “According to cognitive load theory theory, germane load should be increased as far as possible” ​(Schnotz & Kürschner, 2007).

A Few Final Thoughts on Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive load theory presents insightful concepts to the process of learning. Teaching is much more than a haphazard reciting of information with an expectation that students will absorb everything.

Of course, like all theories, cognitive load theory also has some limitations and criticisms. Perfectly constructed lessons that fail to draw attention. Undoubtedly, teachers are challenged to not only teach lessons in math, science, and language but to engage young minds in various states of development. Perhaps, the unconscious lessons taught serve the children better than the obvious subject matter.

Learning how to live requires far more than the conscious process of learning schemata. Yet, again, perhaps, Sweller’s cognitive learning theory applies here as well.


Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F., & Zambrano R., J. (2018). From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 13(2), 213-233.

Schnotz, W., & Kürschner, C. (2007). A Reconsideration of Cognitive Load Theory. Educational Psychology Review, 19(4), 469-508.

Sweller, John (1988). Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science – A Multidisciplinary Journal, 12(2).

Sweller, John (2011). Cognitive Load Theory, Editor(s): Jose P. Mestre, Brian H. Ross, Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Academic Press, Volume 55, Pages 37-76.

Sweller, John, & Levine, Marvin (1982). Effects of goal specificity on means-ends analysis and learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and cognition, 8, 463-474.

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