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Cognitive Load & Optimal Learning

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

It is critical to consider the human learning process and cognitive load when designing and teaching courses across all learning formats. In many cases, higher education faculty and PK-12 education teachers have not been teaching their regularly assigned courses with the sudden shift to remote synchronous and remote asynchronous instruction in March 2020. Therefore, there is an opportunity to review, reflect, refine, and redesign courses to optimize learning.

The need for transformational change and understanding cognitive load are more important than ever. Over the past decade there has been increasing pressure on standardized testing, increasing content in curricula, and increasing co-curricular expectations on students to pursue advanced studies or secure employment. While there have been financial investments in technology, curricula design, and instruction, research does not reflect significant change in academic performance. As instructional designers, faculty, and teachers design and teach courses across all formats, the concepts of cognitive load and time should be central. Quantity does not equate to quality. More content does not result in greater knowledge, better understanding, or higher scores. Educators need foundational knowledge of working memory, the human learning process, and cognitive load theory. Students need time to read, reflect, and process what they are learning; to interact with instructors, content, and students; and actually study and engage in retrieval and spaced practice to support memory consolidation and neuroplasticity. The concepts of cognitive load and time are two of the most critical factors when it comes to learning.

Cognitive load can be defined as the load imposed on working memory by particular learning tasks (van Gog & Pass, 2012). Research indicates that working memory is limited, therefore, it is important to understand Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). Dr. John Sweller is recognized for his renowned work with Cognitive Load Theory. Sweller’s 1988 publication Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning and continued research contributions have increased the understanding of human cognitive architecture as it applies to characteristics and conditions associated with instructional design, teaching, and learning. According to Sweller (2012):

Cognitive load theory is concerned with the manner in which instruction should be presented and the activities in which learners should engage to maximize performance. The theory is based on our knowledge of human cognitive architecture, particularly working memory and long-term memory. Relations between working memory and long-term memory are considered from an evolutionary perspective. (para. 1)

There are three types of cognitive load that must be considered: extraneous, intrinsic, and germane. Intrinsic load pertains to working memory associated with the intrinsic complexity of the material and the level of expertise of the learner. Extraneous load pertains to working memory associated with instructional designs. Germane load pertains to working memory associated with acquiring, processing, constructing, and automating schema into long-term memory.

So why is understanding cognitive load and CLT important to instructional design, teaching, and learning? Shared below are three seminal publications that examine CLT as it applies to cognition, memory, teaching, and learning. These three publications are highly recommended for all educators. Six excerpts from each publication are provided to highlight the importance of understanding the connection between CLT, course design, teaching, and learning.

These three publications are highly recommended for all educators.

Six Excerpts from “Human Cognitive Architecture” (Sweller, 2007, pp. 370-380)

  • Extraneous cognitive load is due to inappropriate instructional designs and so must be reduced. If working memory resources are being fully expended, a reduction in extraneous cognitive load is required to permit an increase in germane cognitive load, a form of cognitive load that can result in useful alterations to long-term memory. (p. 374)

  • Intrinsic cognitive load (Sweller, 1994) can be thought of as the intrinsic complexity of the material being studied. For learners at a given level of expertise, that complexity can be reduced (Pollock et al., 2002) but only by reducing learners’ understanding of the subject matter. (p. 374)

  • Intrinsic cognitive load can, of course, also be reduced by learning (i.e., by testing learners with more expertise). (p. 374)

  • If intrinsic cognitive load is low, it may be possible for germane cognitive load to be high even with inappropriate instructional techniques causing a high extraneous cognitive load. The low intrinsic cognitive load is likely to leave sufficient working memory resources for students to learn even with a poor instructional design. (p. 374)

  • In contrast, if intrinsic cognitive load is high due to high complexity material, unless the extraneous cognitive load is low there may be insufficient working memory capacity to permit a level of germane cognitive load that can result in learning. (p. 374)

  • With a high intrinsic cognitive load, it is essential to keep the extraneous cognitive load low to permit a sufficient level of germane cognitive load. In other words, instructional design be· comes critical with complex material. (p. 374)

Six Excerpts from “Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory” (Kirschner, Sweller, Kirschner, & Zambrano, 2018, pp. 213-233)

  • Cognitive load refers to the total working memory resources required to carry out a learning task. It assumes that human memory can be divided into two basic forms, working memory and long-term memory, that the information that is stored in long-term memory takes the form of schemas, and that the processing of new information requires mental effort resulting in cognitive load on working memory which affects learning outcomes (Sweller, 1998, p. 217)

  • When presented with novel information, there are two additive sources of cognitive load imposed on working memory (Sweller, 2010): intrinsic and extraneous load. In addition, germane cognitive load, defined as the working memory resources devoted to dealing with intrinsic cognitive load, is frequently discussed but it is closely related to intrinsic cognitive load.

  • Intrinsic cognitive load deals with the inherent complexity of the information that needs to be processed. (p. 218)

  • Element interactivity also determines the level of extraneous cognitive load. This form of working memory load refers to the load imposed by information elements unrelated to the learning task such as the way the information or the task is presented (Chen et al., 2016). These elements can be produced by instructional procedures and so it is under the control of instructors and can be varied by using different instructional procedures. (p. 2019)

  • Collaborative learning occurs when two or more students actively contribute to the attainment of a mutual learning goal and try to share the effort required to reach this goal, either face-to-face or supported by a computer (Teasley & Roschelle, 1993). This activity is most often initiated by the posing of a learning task or problem by the instructor. (p. 219)

  • The distinction between intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load is equally relevant to both individual and collaborative learning. All translate directly and easily to collaborative learning. The major additions required when dealing with collaborative learning are the concepts of a collective working memory along with the effects due to the transactive activities associated with the multiple individual working memories that constitute the collective working memory. (p. 229)

Six Excerpts from “Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later” (Sweller, van Merriënboer, & Paas, 2019, pp. 261-292)

  • Cognitive load theory aims to explain how the information processing load induced by learning tasks can affect students’ ability to process new information and to construct knowledge in long-term memory. (p. 261)

  • Accordingly, intrinsic cognitive load is determined by both the complexity of the information and the knowledge of the person processing that information. (p. 264)

  • Extraneous cognitive load is not determined by the intrinsic complexity of the information but rather, how the information is presented and what the learner is required to do by the instructional procedure. (p. 264)

  • Cognitive load is increased when unnecessary demands are imposed on the cognitive system.

    • If cognitive load becomes too high, it hampers learning and transfer. Such demands include inadequate instructional methods to educate students about a subject as well as unnecessary distractions of the environment.

    • Cognitive load may also be increased by processes that are germane to learning, such as instructional methods that emphasise subject information that is intrinsically complex. (p. 262)

  • Currently, we assume that rather than contributing to the total load, germane cognitive load redistributes working memory resources from extraneous activities to activities directly relevant to learning by dealing with information intrinsic to the learning task. (p. 264)

  • If emotions, stress and uncertainty are seen as undesirable states for learning, one might say that they cause extraneous load that should be decreased by preventing these states. But if emotion, stress and uncertainty are seen as an integral element of the task that must be learned, they contribute to intrinsic cognitive load and must be dealt with in another way. Then, future research should contribute to identifying instructional interventions that help learners deal more effectively with stress, emotions and uncertainty. (p. 285)

There are two new areas related to CLT, as cited by Sweller et al. (2019), which include (a) working memory resource depletion and (b) self-regulated learning.

In Cognitive Load Theory: Methods to Manage Working Memory Load in the Learning of Complex Tasks, Paas and van Merriënboer (2020) further explore intrinsic and extraneous load. The authors share that working memory capacity available for learning is determined by “learning-task characteristics and available schemas in LTM (i.e., prior knowledge)” as well as by “aspects of the learner and physical environment” (p. 396). Under learning tasks, Paas and van Merriënboer (2020) focus on split-attention effect, work-example effect, and guidance-fading effect. Under learner, they focus on collaboration, gesturing, and motivation cues. Under the learning environment, they focus on attention-capturing-stimuli reduction, eye closure, and stress-suppressing activities. As shared by Paas and van Merriënboer (2020), understanding how these characteristics interact should always be considered as “one system in which manipulating one aspect has consequences for the whole system” (p. 397).

In addition to the highlights provided through the prior publications, research by Dr. Richard Mayer provides critical insight into principles of multimedia learning and cognitive load, which is of particular importance as they relate to student-to-content interaction which may be associated with learning applications, learning management systems, and assessment. Mayer’s 2021 publication of Multimedia Learning also provides critical insight on cognitive load as well as the science of learning, instruction, and assessment.

The following link is recommended to visit as new research continues to emerge relating to CLT. Select Publications: Emeritus Professor John Sweller

Balance silver balls

Author: Dr. Kristen Betts

Learn more about how INTERACT123 can support your work with cognitive load.


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