Cognitive Load Theory: Animated by IDOL courses

Uncategorized Dec 07, 2018

How it Works

To learn our brains have to process new information in our working memory. This is the place we store stuff until it can be converted into permanent long-term memory. When we are conscious we are only using our working memory until we retrieve long-term into working memory (short-term memory) where it is processed once again.

Therefore, course information must take place in working memory. When people are learning the gateway is the working memory zone.

The working memory zone has rules and regulations.

  • It can only hold seven elements of information at a time.
  • It can only hold information for less than 30 seconds at a time (without retrieval/rehearsal).

The rules above are true for both newbies and expert learners.

This means if one is given too much new material too quickly or in a disordered way, the working memory will glitch or overload. Cognitive overload!

Hence, learning will not and cannot occur if the main processor doesn't have enough memory.

The Fix for Learning

However, sequencing information appropriately is a workaround to utilizing a learner's long-term memory. You'll get around the limitations of the working memory and tap directly into the long-term memory.

This is achieved through schemas. Schemas are the combination of taking several elements of information and chunking them into a single element that is able to be processed by working memory. Basically, if you want to taste tofu, oil, rice noodles, shrimp, fish sauce, rice vinegar, eggs, peanuts, bean sprouts, lemon, green onions, and red pepper you could taste a tablespoon of each. I bet you'd be tired of the experiment after you got to fish sauce. Instead, crush it all together and make some pad thai! Yum.

This is what schemas are. Condensing an entire recipe into one tasty dish.


The more recipes you make the more complex you can get with your next dish. The combination of lower-level schemas into higher-level schemas creates expertise and skilled performance. In addition, repetition can create an automation in the learner and the schema becomes automatic. Raise your hand if you've made a recipe so many times you have it memorized. I have and it's gluten-free quiche.

The ability to retrieve information on demand in new situations in the future is the instructional design goal. Thus, the instructional designer must carefully manage cognitive load of the working memory to allow the processing of schemas and their automation (repetition).

The Theory Principles

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

How many things need to be learned simultaneously = interactivity.

How complex is the information? Complex information that has to be learned simultaneously = high intrinsic load.

The intrinsic load of information cannot be changed by instructional design, but the presentation can.

Reduce intrinsic load by:

  • Presenting content from simple to complex.
  • Part to whole sequencing.
  • Give students time to process information and remove time pressure.
  • Encourage students to offload working memory by writing information down.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

Extraneous cognitive load is how the information is presented to learners. Extraneous load also refers to the material that does not directly contribute to learning and may in fact hinder it.

Reduce extraneous cognitive load by:

  • Keep course information concentrated on the need to knows.
  • Avoid redundancy.
  • Do not ask learners to integrate disparate sources of information.
  • Make sure learners have the required schemas to solve course problems.

Germane Cognitive Load

The instructional design that fosters germane cognitive load wins! Germane cognitive load is where the facilitation of automated schemas happens.

Increase germane cognitive load by:

  • Distributed practice: spacing out study sessions over time to reinforce durable learning (Benjamin and Tullis 2010).
  • Interleaving: mixing related, but distinct material, during study sessions to force learners to discriminate between ideas and problem types that reinforce learning and its transfer (Rohrer 2012).
  • Retrieval practice: asking learners to recreate something learned in the past from memory to reinforce learning and make information more retrievable in the future (Roediger et al. 2011).
  • Elaboration (or reflection): asking learners to explain and describe ideas with many details, and making connections to own experiences, to promote the acquisition of more complex schemas (Brown et al 2014).
  • Concrete examples: linking abstract concepts with concrete examples to help learners understand new material by combining new concepts to existing schemas.



Sweller, J. 2004. Instructional design consequences of an analogy between evolution by natural selection and human cognitive architecture. Instructional science, 32(1-2), pp. 9-31.

Sweller, J. 1994. Cognitive Load Theory, Learning Difficulty, and Instructional Design. Learning and Instruction, 4: 295-312.

Sweller, J. 1988. Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285.


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