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Cognitive Load Theory

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is like a GPS for your brain—it guides you to take the most efficient route to learning. Developed by educational psychologists, John Sweller, Paul Ayres, and Slava Kalyuga, CLT helps us comprehend how our brains process information and handle the "load" of new knowledge.


Picture your brain as a sponge, soaking up information. But just like a sponge, it can only handle so much water before it becomes saturated. Similarly, your brain has limited capacity for processing information. That's where CLT comes in, helping us understand how to optimise our learning process and avoid cognitive overload.


During lockdown in 2020 with more time on my hands, I decided to try and learn more about this concept. I watched the very informative YouTube video from Stuart Farmer on ‘An Introduction to Cognitive Load Theory in Physics’ as part of the Physics Teacher Virtual Summer School. This recording went into great depth about:

  • working memory and long-term memory

  • types of cognitive load

  • cognitive overload

  • CLT effects such as the split attention effect, modality effect, worked example effect, expertise reversal effect and example-problem pairs.


For those interested, the recording can be found here:

Working Memory & Long-Term Memory

Before we look at how CLT works in more detail, it's worth reminding ourselves about how the working memory and long-term memory work together.

The working memory receives information from the environment, temporarily holds this information for processing and retrieves suitable schema (organised chunks of information) from the long-term memory. Our working memory has limited capacity for new information - we can only store around 4 items at any one time. This is crucial for teachers to be aware of, as we don't want to overload our students' working memories when teaching new material, or applying knowledge to tackle questions.

The long-term memory is concerned with schema. We say that information has been 'learned' when it is stored in the long-term memory. Large amounts of information are stored semi-permanently in the form of schemas, which are organised elements of information. A schema will only take up a single space in working memory. Extensive practice can lead to automation, in which schema are accessed automatically without straining the working memory. Examples of this include driving a car or riding a bike - you don't need to think too hard about these tasks. Before young people sit exams, they should be aiming for extensive practice in each of their subjects so that skills become automatic. For example, pupils studying physics should practice using equations in calculations again and again so that it becomes second nature in the exam.

A nice summary of the relationship between attention, working memory and long-term memory is shown in the diagram below from Oliver Caviglioli (

Source: Oliver Caviglioli

How Does CLT Work?

CLT operates on three main types of cognitive load:

  1. Intrinsic Load: This is the essential difficulty of the material itself. Some topics are naturally more complex, and the intrinsic load varies depending on the individual's prior knowledge and expertise. For example, a beginner and an advanced student will experience different intrinsic loads when studying the same subject.

  2. Extraneous Load: This refers to the unnecessary cognitive burden imposed by how the material is presented. Poorly structured lessons, cluttered study spaces, or distracting environments can all contribute to extraneous load and hinder effective learning.

  3. Germane Load: On the positive side, this type of load involves the mental effort dedicated to building connections, understanding, and integrating new information with existing knowledge. It's the load that leads to true learning and retention.

Practical Tips for Studying with Cognitive Load Theory

  1. Chunk it Up: Instead of overwhelming yourself with a massive amount of study material, break it down into smaller, manageable chunks. Focus on mastering one chunk before moving on to the next. This way, you'll reduce the intrinsic load and make it easier for your brain to grasp the concepts.

  2. Use Visual Aids: Our brains love visual cues! Incorporate diagrams, mind maps, and charts into your study routine. These visual aids help in organising information, reducing extraneous load, and making the learning process more enjoyable.

  3. Embrace Spaced Repetition: Instead of cramming all your study sessions into one night, space them out over time. Spaced repetition allows your brain to reinforce memory and learning, reducing the cognitive load and making the information stick in the long term.

  4. Take Breaks: Give your brain some well-deserved rest! Breaks are essential for processing and consolidating information. Studies show that short, frequent breaks during study sessions can enhance focus and retention while minimising cognitive load.

  5. Optimise Your Study Environment: Minimise distractions in your study space to reduce extraneous load. Find a quiet, well-lit area and keep it organised. Steer clear of multitasking, as it divides your cognitive resources and diminishes focus.


So there you have it—Cognitive Load Theory in a nutshell! By optimising the way you study, you can maximise your learning potential and breeze through even the toughest subjects.

Source: Practical Psychology (YouTube)


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