Cognitive Load Theory: A teacher's guide

Zoe Benjamin and Paul Main

How can you use Cognitive Load Theory to improve learning outcomes in your classroom?

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is an instructional design theory that deals with how the human brain processes and stores information. Teachers should be familiar with the basic principles of CLT as it helps educators consider how learners process knowledge. Although this theory was published in the Journal of educational psychology a number of years ago, it has only relatively recently received the attention it deserves. Classroom teachers need to know how they can reduce cognitive load as there are profound implications for learning outcomes. At its most basic level, we need to acknowledge that we all have a limited mental storage capacity and once this has been used, we begin to see negative cognitive load effects on memory and comprehension.

John Sweller is a professor emeritus at the University of NSW. His doctoral dissertation was about how people learn new things. He has published dozens of papers on the subject of teaching and learning.

According to John Sweller, who proposed the Cognitive Load Theory in the Late 1980s, the best learning occurs when the learning environment is aligned with the human cognitive capacity. The Cognitive Load Theory revolves around some of the well-known theories about how we process and store information. Some of these theories are:

  • Human memory is divided into long-term memory and working memory;
  • Processing of new knowledge leads to ‘cognitive load’ on working memory which may influence learning outcomes; and
  • Content knowledge is stored in the form of schemas in long-term memory.

What do we mean by Cognitive Load?

Cognitive load is referred to as the amount of information that our working memory capacity can hold at one time. Sweller J argues that human memory has a limited capacity; therefore, instructional procedures need to avoid overloading it with those activities that don't directly enhance learning.

When information is entered into human brains, it carries a cognitive load that exerts a processing burden on the brain to provide meaningful learning outcomes to the information. According to Educational Psychology experts, students use their working memory to hold bits of information into their working memory. This limited working memory is used by the students while paying attention to explicit instruction in the classroom.

Although working memory & cognition has a limited cognitive processing capacity it plays an important role in a person’s process of learning. It may lose its effectiveness, especially in the case of a complex instructional design, where the learner needs to put more effort to process the information. The cognitive load of learners indicates the amount of mental activity carried out by the working memory to perform a specific learning task.

Certain factors may affect the Cognitive load in the working memory & cognition. For example, the greater the amount of information taught at once, the greater are the chances that the private and public schools students will not retain it. Due to this, it is crucial to manage the mental workload of learners efficiently.

As it has been mentioned, Cognitive Load Theory was developed by John Sweller, who published his findings in the book Cognitive Load Theory: Toward a Practical Science of How People Process Information. He found that the brain could only focus on three items simultaneously, and that the amount of cognitive load increased exponentially as the number of tasks increased.Sweller argued that the human mind had evolved over millions of years to cope with limited attention spans, and that modern technology was causing us to overload our brains. He believed that the solution was to simplify the design of products so that they would require less mental effort to navigate.

This theory is still very much debated today, and there is no consensus among researchers as to whether it holds true. Some studies have shown that the effect is real, while others have failed to replicate the finding.

Regardless of whether or not the theory holds true, it does provide insight into the psychology behind how humans interact with digital educational platforms. There are two main points to consider when applying this theory to educational technology:

• Simplicity increases usability. As the number of choices decreases, the likelihood that users will choose the correct option increases. Students tend to prefer simpler designs, and they are more likely to remember the interface if it is easier to understand. If the platform is too complicated then the students attention might focus more so on the functionality as opposed to the content.

• Complexity increases efficiency. When the user needs to perform multiple actions to complete a task, they become frustrated and give up faster. Teachers should strive to create interfaces that minimize the number of steps required to accomplish a given goal.

In addition to simplifying the design of an educational activity, teachers must also try to avoid making it unnecessarily complex. Avoiding unnecessary complexity allows children to focus on the task at hand rather than trying to figure out how to navigate through menus and other features.

The theory behind cognitive load
The theory behind cognitive load

What are the different forms of cognitive load?

The Cognitive Theory has identified the following three different forms of cognitive load:

  • Intrinsic Load: Intrinsic load indicates the inherent difficulty of the learning task, which mostly occur due to the prior knowledge of the topic. It is a complex concept to understand in the real world. Sweller Et Al believed that the intrinsic cognitive load can only be reduced by altering the nature of learning material or by changing the cognitive tasks or the act of learning itself. For example, a reader's mental workload can be reduced by using more plain and legible handwriting, rather than using a cursive, scribbly font.
  • Extraneous Load: Extraneous load is a kind of load created due to the way the instructional materials are presented, which does not help in the learning process. The extraneous load can be increased or reduced based on several factors – the type of task, whether or not the student has difficulties with attention, attentional demands for a task, etc. An example of Extraneous Memory Load is a situation where someone is trying to study but is disturbed by loud music or nearby traffic. These noises are considered extraneous load as they act as obstacles to the completion of cognitive tasks.
  • Germane Load: Germane Load includes the components that help the processing of information and contribute to the long-lasting construction of schemas. A typical example of Germane load is creating diagrams and flowcharts to perform complex tasks. The systematic organization of Germane materials makes complex learning easier and helps to remember.

Depending on its nature, cognitive load can either be helpful or detrimental in learning. Hence, for an effective learning process, one must:

  • Optimize extraneous cognitive load;
  • Manage intrinsic cognitive load; and
  • Promote germane cognitive load.

Reduce extraneous load with a graphic organiser
Reduce extraneous load with a graphic organiser

Applying the cognitive load theory to improve learning outcomes

It is possible to apply the concept of cognitive load to improve the private and public schools students learning and training processes to achieve meaningful learning outcome. The cognitive load theory states that when we're trying to learn something, our brain must work harder than usual. We need to process information faster and remember it longer. This means that we can only handle so many things at once. When we try to learn too much at once, we experience overload. Overload happens when we're overloaded with information and overwhelmed by the task at hand. Overload leads to stress. Stress makes us tired, irritable, and unable to concentrate. This is bad news for students because overload causes them to forget important details and fail tests.

But there's hope! There are ways to reduce the amount of information we take in at once. One of these methods is called chunking. Chunking is breaking down large amounts of information into small chunks. Chunks help us understand concepts better and retain information longer. They also allow us to focus on just one concept at a time instead of having to juggle multiple ideas. By reducing the number of items we try to learn at once, we can avoid overload and improve our ability to absorb and recall information.

That's why teachers should pay attention to cognitive load theory and here are some practical ideas for your classroom for reducing your children's mental load.

1. Reducing the Problem Space

The gap between a present situation and the ultimate goal of the instruction is called problem space. In case of a large problem space, students' working memory may become overloaded. It mostly happens at the time of learning complex concepts, where the learner needs to hold a lot of details in the working memory at once. A better way is to reduce the problem space by breaking the information down into parts or providing worked examples with some solutions for the learners. This will make learning more effective while reducing the problem space and taking the cognitive load off from the learner activities.

2. Measuring Expertise to adapt Presentation

According to the cognitive load theorists, it is a good idea to adapt the design of instruction according to the level of expertise of the students. It can be done by asking the students to describe how familiar they are with the learning task. Also, instructional designers may use Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives to present the right information to the students with the right level of primary knowledge about the concept and to achieve meaningful learning outcome.

3. Reducing Split-Attention Effect

Using more than a single piece of visual information, such as graphs, diagrams and explanatory text, may divide a students' attention between them. This increase in the memory load may make it more difficult to establish new schemas. According to Cognitive Psychology experts in the educational psychology review, this effect can be reduced by altering the instructional conditions, such as incorporating labels into diagrams or by focusing on any single item in the visual stimuli or visual instructional design in a sequential manner. For teachers, it's important to remember that students have limited mental storage capacity and we should design complex tasks so as not to cause too much 'attention flipping'. With all the digital distractions that our students encounter, taking personal responsibility for our own mental load might soon be regarded as an essential problem-solving skill. This type of knowledge of instructional control can certainly improve outcomes by lessening the load during learning.

4. Using Visual and Auditory Channels in the Working Memory

The split-attention effect can be reduced by replacing some of the visual instructional design with auditory details. This will reduce the cognitive load on students' visual working memory while also utilizing the auditory instructional materials, which owns their individual memory space. Some of the instructional designers and teachers replicate this by directing their students' attention to parts of a visual representation while talking about it. This has the effect of reducing the mental storage capacity needed as the working memory is no longer struggling to decode lots of text. Reducing the mental load using this type of approach during cognitive tasks is sometimes referred to as dual coding. There are particular implications for using this strategy in reducing the load in multimedia learning. Minimising the amount of text and incorporating symbols can significantly improve the learner's experience.

Our block building pedagogy enables 'mental offloading'
Our block building pedagogy enables 'mental offloading'

How does cognitive load affect learning?

To understand cognitive load theory, it helps to first understand how our memory works.

Researchers have identified three parts to our memory:

Our sensory memory processes everything in our environment, taking in information from all our senses.  It holds on to each piece of information for less than half a second while it filters it for anything of importance that we need to pay attention to.

When that happens, we become focused on specific pieces of information, giving it entry into our short-term memory.  Information can stay in our short-term memory for up to 30 seconds, and we can slightly extend that time by repeating information using our inner voice.

If we want to remember the information to use in the future, it must be moved into our long-term memory.  This is where information is filed, ready for us to retrieve when we need it.  New information is linked with previous learning from related topics to help us retrieve it more effectively in the future.  There seems to be no limit to the capacity of our long-term memory; the challenge lies in transferring the information to there from our short-term memory and then storing it in a way that makes it possible for us to retrieve it later. 

John Sweller Memory and learning
Memory and learning


How is learning affected by exceeding our cognitive load?

Learning is the acquisition of new knowledge or a new skill that can be used at a future date.  It is therefore characterised by a permanent change in our long-term memory.  This occurs when information is successfully transferred (or encoded) and stored in our long-term memory.

Cognitive Load Theory explains how information is transferred to long-term memory; understanding this process enables us to identify small changes that will improve how quickly and effectively we can learn new information.  Students, teachers, and families can use cognitive load theory to create environments where teaching, learning, and revision can occur more effectively.

For information to move into our long-term memory, it must be actively attended to and processed by our short-term memory in a way that requires effort.

Our short-term memory consists of different stores:

  • The Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad encodes visual information, such as location, colour, or shape
  • The Phonological Loop encodes speech and ‘hears’ your inner voice when you read text
  • The Episodic Buffer creates and retrieves memories of experiences
  • The Central Executive monitors and coordinates the different memory stores

Each store is limited in how much information it can process at a given time.  If a store becomes overloaded with information, it will become very difficult to focus on anything well enough to move it into the long-term memory.

One way to increase the capacity of our short-term memory is by using two stores at the same time: dual processing.  This technique often involves presenting learners with a picture, which is processed by their visuo-spatial sketchpad, and talking about the picture, which will be processed by their phonological loop.  This provides the new information with two routes into the long-term memory and two potential cues (visual and auditory) that can make retrieving the information easier.

Visual-Spatial Sketchpad
Visual-Spatial Sketchpad

Embracing Cognitive Load Theory in your classroom

Cognitive Theory is more related to understanding how people can process and store information. It is a concept that all private and public school teachers need to embrace, as it helps to understand how learners process information. To improve the intellectual performance of the students, one must think about how to use a format of instruction to help reduce cognitive load to achieve the meaningful learning outcomes that we all strive for.

Cognitive load theory states that we should take away any unnecessary pressure from the short-term memory, leaving it more able to focus on the information that needs to move into the long-term memory.

…when teaching

  • Avoid overloading one store with information
  • Don’t speak when you need students to be reading
  • Stop talking when there is text on the board
  • Use two separate stores to present new information
  • Talk when you are displaying images
  • Use coloured font to show links or differences
  • Make explicit links with prior learning to help students integrate the new information into their long-term memories
  • Reduce unnecessary visual distractions from the front of the classroom


…as a learner

  • Don’t divide your attention when you learning
  • Put your phone out of sight and turn off the TV
  • Listen to music without lyrics to relieve your phonological loop
  • Working in silence is even better
  • Read out loud to focus all of your attention on what you are reading
  • Use colour and put notes in different positions on the paper to help you remember them
  • Recall information rather than copying it – this will force you to pay more attention to the information

Consider how you can use cognitive load theory to create an environment that will support learning. Small changes that free up space in your short-term are likely to make learning faster and more effective.

Reducing cognitive load with the Universal Thinking Framework
Reducing cognitive load with the Universal Thinking Framework


Cognitive load measures students can take

At Structural Learning, we embrace cognitive science to help us design classroom tools. The following list will help you think about how you can utilise CLT to achieve your classroom goals.

  1. Writer's Block: this toolkit enables children to increase their cognitive capacity. Very much inspired by the work of Sweller, the building blocks are used to offload some of the mental work. The pedagogy enables schema acquisition at a very practical level. A simple task such as building a sentence can be turned into something increasingly more complex without being a burden on the mental load of the learner.
  2. The Universal Thinking Framework: This instructional taxonomy helps teachers design for meaningful learning outcomes. The guidance materials help children to build domain knowledge systematically. This cognitive load approach enables teachers to design subject specific activities that incremental increase with complexity. Children can engage in creative critical thinking exercises whilst broadening their cognitive skill acquisition.
  3. Graphic Organisers: These visual tools help students understand knowledge in greater depth. Again, these simple PDFs were influenced by John Swellers work on reducing the extraneous load for the learner.