Cognitive Load Theory and its impact on my teaching

A CPD research project by Edward Walker (History)


I have for some time been interested in the application of teaching and learning strategies that have a firm evidence base and are supported by scientific studies and approaches.  Combined with the increased knowledge base that is required by the new GCSE in History there were a number of areas where it seemed natural to focus my action research. The areas that formed the basis of my initial research were focused around high impact teaching that was favoured by cognitive psychologists. These areas included; spaced practice, dual coding, spacing, interleaving and retrieval practice.  These areas are teaching strategies that have been found to be effective in promoting effective knowledge retention. On closer reading of these strategies it became clear that the area underpinning the success of these strategies was that of cognitive load theory (CLT).

Key theory

Central to the theory of CLT is the concept that our working memory can only deal with so much information at any one time.  The working memory can only hold a few isolated facts or process two or three ideas at any one time. Therefore, if we place too much load upon our students’ memory it will become very difficult for them to actively engage in the material that we are attempting to share with them. 

CLT has developed over time, with three distinct phases.  I have decided to use the most up to date theory at present   (Plass, Moreno and Brunken, 2010) . It is also important when discussing CLT to understand schema theory, this states that people represent knowledge as networks of connected facts and concepts that provide a structure that makes sense of new learning (Anderson and Bower 1983).   CLT theory states that there are three different forms of cognitive load. The first Germane Load is the most recent, this focuses on the processes that aid the development of schema. The second of these, Intrinsic Cognitive Load,  states that the material itself can appear more or less difficult dependent on the prior knowledge of the topic.   The final part of the theory was the first developed, (Sweller et al., 1990) Extraneous Cognitive Load, this concerns itself with eliminating any source of load caused by instructional design.   

There are many areas of the theory that  are not covered in this blog in detail or are merely implied, to name a few; the effect of personalization, the fading effect, measuring cognitive load, mental effort in CLT and self-regulation.

Impact on teaching and learning

In my understanding the main message of CLT is this: working memory has only a limited capacity, long term memory is infinite. Therefore it is crucial for successful learning to take place that knowledge should be transferred to long term memory, as this will allow students to then draw on this long term memory and reduce the cognitive load in tackling new learning task.  If learning is not built up in stages and new information is not carefully transferred to long-term memory, the student overloads the working memory and either make errors or abandons the task completely.

CLT is so very different from the prevalent pedagogy in the mid-2000s when I began teaching, a variety of choice and project based learning was actively encouraged in the classroom, and students encouraged to choose the learning style that was most effective for them (Hargreaves, 2006). The additional cognitive load that this placed on students will have made it difficult for them to retain facts. On reflection, in my own teaching this was the prevalent style that I adopted for KS3, and rightly or wrongly in lesson observations at this time. Throughout my career when teaching GCSE and A-level History I have naturally favoured a more didactic teacher led style that relied heavily on the textbook and my own notes as a key resource.  I had without realizing it fallen back on to strategies to reduce cognitive load, where the development of long-term memory was important for examination results . I had done this through the reduction in variation in teaching styles and had therefore reduced extraneous cognitive load.

The research suggested that there is still some way to go in reducing extraneous cognitive load. I have been guilty in the past of using Powerpoint presentations, occasionally with dense text whilst lecturing students on topics. In hindsight, this may have caused too much strain on the working memory. This made it difficult for students to commit the new knowledge to long term memory, as they could not make sense of the new material at times and use existing schema effectively. Chandler and Sweller (1992) recommend that the split-attention effect is avoided, by presenting information within a topic through two separate sources students generate unnecessary extraneous  load.  I have adapted my teaching to ensure that tasks are simplified and reinforced to help reduce extraneous CLT.

Another way in which I had at times possibly created unnecessary cognitive load is by summarizing topics too quickly and with too much information at the same time. There is a real pressure to do this due to the new History GCSE curriculum. However, intrinsic cognitive load, where the material itself is difficult, could have been reduced. Over the course of the year, I have avoided delivering lessons where detailed and complex historical concepts are presented  simultaneously alongside detailed historical knowledge. For example, when teaching the Whitechapel source analysis unit it has been important to sequence lessons so that the knowledge can be developed into schema and committed to long term memory as the first part of the sequence. Once this knowledge is committed it is then time move onto understanding the historical concepts of the usefulness and reliability of sources.

If I think about the approaches that I have taken in the past to students completing practice papers there are some methods that have been more successful than others. Considering these in the light of CLT helps me to shine a light on understanding why some of these were more successful than others. The most successful approaches I have used to help students to answer complex exam questions have been very methodical and involve scaffolding. Starting with an example to a question, providing them with a framework to answer the question and then asking them to attempt the task without any framework. This is a technique that I have found to be successful in building students’ confidence.

In hindsight what I had been doing here whilst helping their confidence was in fact supporting their working memory by allowing them to work through a sequence in how to develop their response to detailed questions. This has in fact been subject to a study by Van Merrienboer et al (2003) which looked at the effect of scaffolding in reducing extraneous load. Kalyuga (2003) highlighted the importance of eventually removing the scaffold or else it will become unnecessary and hence ceases to be (helpful) germane cognitive load.

There are a number of techniques that I have used throughout the year to improve students’ long term memory and hence improve students’ ability to use their working memory throughout the year. These have included; spacing in the curriculum, low stakes knowledge tests, interleaving and dual coding. I have found these approaches to be useful to varying degrees. However, the most important element of all of these approaches has been to keep them simple and therefore minimize extraneous cognitive load and ensure that they develop in sequence to assist in minimizing intrinsic CLT.

A few simple to use tips I have picked up from my reading around CLT that are not analysed in detail in this blog. The first is keep to the same topic for a longer period of time, allowing students to practice an answer after covering a small sub-section of a topic before transferring to another element within the topic. I have found that if they do not have the opportunity to reflect on what they have just covered it can stray from the working memory and lead to memory failure  and frustration. The second is stop after five minutes, if a student is finding a particular type of question challenging after five minutes this may lead to disillusionment as the solution pathway cannot be found and seek help from you as their teacher. Their time is better spent moving on to a question which they are able to tackle.

Impact on curriculum

Many of the techniques advocated to decrease cognitive load are relevant at an organisational level as well as a classroom level. Particularly that of the development of long term knowledge retention. CLT makes it very important to ensure that chunks of knowledge are built up over time that allow for more working memory to be available as a long term knowledge base can be called upon. Practically this means that at an organisational level it is important to plan the curriculum in such a way that there is real coherence between KS3 and KS4. Methods for the development of knowledge to long term memory should be clearly developed in the KS3 curriculum so that extraneous cognitive load is reduced. If students can rely on the schema that they already have for example for how to answer questions about the usefulness of a source when they enter Year 10 it means that working memory can effectively be used for the acquisition of new knowledge about the historical context of the time.

This helps further evidence the pedagogy around my school’s 1-9 grading system. It has over the course of the year also made clear to me the need for faculties to have a very clearly planned set of learning steps and methods to reduce extraneous load in a global curriculum sense as well as in individual classrooms.  Our curriculum framework has been partly designed with this in mind. Whilst also retaining an element of flexibility for faculties so that subjects and teachers are able to develop in a way that suits Germane Cognitive Load, in other words, methods that help their subject and learners develop schema in a way that is as efficient as possible.

Final thoughts

 Cognitive load theory does not offer a comprehensive answer to the challenges facing the modern secondary school teacher. There are times when the demands of the curriculum mean that the breaking down of topics to the extent that CLT proponents advocate is unlikely to be possible. If CLT was adhered to too closely it would I fear lead to learning being too fragmented.  At the same time it does offer up some challenges for the validity of the qualifications currently on offer, in promoting meaningful learning.   

The key limitation is the danger and simplicity that some promote through CLT. Providing context and personalization are still key. It was interesting reading many of the techniques advocated as being techniques that I have practiced and observed over the last decade without understanding exactly why they were so successful. It should also be remembered that CLT is still in its relatively early days as a research area.

There are numerous further studies needed before one could be certain of the approaches advocated.  However, I do think that most of what is advocated chimes with a lot of the good practice that I have seen over the past decade. I would highly recommend teachers spend some time understanding the basics of CLT theory and consider some of the approaches that support the development of long term memory and cut down on the overloading of working memory. In the context of the recent changes to the GCSE curriculum it is a theory that is pertinent.

Bullet point tips

  • Ensure that learning is presented in as clear a format as possible. Do not over complicate.
  • Sequence learning into chunks that are manageable for the memory, but do not oversimplify.
  • Create a long term curriculum plan that helps students to commit learning to long term memory, cutting the amount of processing required by the working  memory.

 Further reading

Ashman G (2017) Four ways cognitive load theory has changed my teaching. Available at: 25 July 2017).

 Chandler P and Sweller J (1992) The split-attention effect as a factor in the design of instruction. British Journal of Educational Psychology (62): 233–246.

 Holton D (2009) Cognitive Load Theory: Failure? Available at: 04 July 2018).

Paas F, Renkl A and Sweller J (2003) Cognitive Load Theory and instructional design: Recent developments. Educational Psychologist 38(1):1–4.

Plass, Moreno, Brunken (2010) Cognitive Load Theory: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Reif F (2010) Applying Cognitive Science to Education. Thinking and Learning in Scientific and Other Complex Domains. Cambridge, MA:The MIT Press.

Renkl A and Atkinson R (2003) Structuring the transition from example study to problem solving in cognitive skill acquisition: A cognitive load perspective. Educational Psychologist 38(1): 15–22.

Van Merriënboer J, Kirschner P and Kester L (2003) Taking the load off a learner’s mind: Instructional design for complex learning.  Educational Psychologist 38(1): 5–13.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. 1st ed.Bloomington (In.): Solution Tree.

Featured image: ‘Head’ by geralt on Pixabay.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC0

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.