Cognitive Load Theory. What is it?
“The single most important thing for teachers to know”
– Dylan William (renowned educationalist)
That’s a big statement coming from Dylan Williams. Yet, as a seasoned teacher and researcher, I cannot agree more with this statement. Cognitive Load Theory is a theory of learning that should be adopted by every educator who seeks to be effective in their teaching.
As you send your child off to school each day, you want to be assured that they are receiving the best kind of learning. That their teachers are using the most effective methods to support your child’s acquisition of skills and understanding.
Though many teachers are taught theories of learning at university, applying it in the classroom is a different ball game.
To be confident your child is being well educated requires you to be well informed in the first place. Knowledge is power! Yet, action is more powerful.
At GEA, we promise clarity (as one of our 5Cs method). Hence, we strive to ensure that as a parent, you remain well informed of not just what your child is learning but more importantly, how they are learning.
What is Cognitive Load Theory?
Put simply, cognitive load theory is a learning theory based on how the brain functions. It explains how learners receive information and guides the use of learning processes.
An interesting fact for you – the theory was developed by an Australian educational psychologist, Professor John Sweller, who also supervised my PhD research!
“Cognitive load theory has been designed to provide guidelines intended to assist in the presentation of information in a manner that encourages learner activities that optimise intellectual performance.”
– Professor John Sweller
According to cognitive load theory, effective learning considers how the brain processes and stores information. Learning experiences influenced by this theory are designed to reduce the load on the working memory given its limitations.
Let’s break it down into components that are easier to digest.
One brain, two systems
As humans, we have two major memory systems, working memory and long-term memory.
- Working memory only can process a limited amount of information at once and can hold it for a short amount of time.
- To retain information permanently, we need to transfer it to long-term memory, for which there are no known limits on capacity or duration.
- Processing new information requires the use of working memory (a conscious effort) and therefore results in a ‘cognitive load’ on the working memory.
So, how does the varying capacities within our working memory and long-term memory influence how we learn?
Back to basics
There are three types of cognitive load:
- Extraneous Cognitive Load: the load that results from usually poorly written instructions or questions. The way new information is presented makes a significant difference on learners’ cognition and the amount of load they experience. The simpler the new information is presented, the easier for the brain to absorb it.
- Intrinsic Cognitive Load: the load that learners experience as a result of the complexity of the concept or material taught. For many years, researchers thought that this type of load is impossible to avoid. However, these days there are proven methods to reduce it such as splitting tasks and also linking to previous knowledge.
- Germane Cognitive Load (the good one): the load we experience when we consciously learn new material we know we want to use in the future. For example, when solving a question in maths knowing that we will use the same method for the next question. Another example would be when we drive to a new destination knowing we will drive the same route again. Surely, we will invest in paying more attention to learn the route. You probably feel it is more “stressful” to do that, than just driving following a GPS.
There are five basic principles which underpin the cognitive load theory:
- Information store – most of our actions (know-how) are directed by information stored in our long-term memory.
- Borrowing and re-organising – information is organised within the framework of our long-term memory. We build on this (i.e. learn) by borrowing information from others and re-organising that information within our own framework.
- Randomness as genesis – operates when we need to solve a problem but are unable to borrow information from others or draw from our long-term memory. Instead, we randomly generate solutions and as we determine their effectiveness, we acquire new knowledge.
- Narrow limits of change – working memory can only store and process a certain volume of information at a time, it has a limited capacity and can only hold new information for a limited duration.
- Environmental linking and organising – unlimited amounts of information previously organised into the framework of the long-term memory can be brought into the working memory to enable us to function in our environment.
How does this learning theory help my child?
Through the lens of cognitive load theory, we’re able to see why your child may find problem-solving to be a difficult task. It also explains why common and trivial errors are made when solving a problem.
Why? Because if a learner is given too much to think about at a time, they’re likely to become overloaded and struggle to solve the problem in front of them. If they do find the solution, the more complex elements have consumed so much of their working memory that there’s no room left to address the trivial errors (e.g. typos and inclusion of units or what we call the silly mistakes).
This works against how the brain naturally functions.
At GEA, we overcome this learning challenge using three key methods:
- Re-structuring problems into discrete parts (splitting tasks and providing pre-skills) to separate the processes driven by the working memory versus the long-term memory
- Providing students with previously worked examples to enable them to transfer this information to long-term memory, reducing the load on the working memory
- Linking to previous knowledge, formal and informal, to utilise previously stored knowledge in long-term memory.
Are you interested in learning more about cognitive load theory? If so, please contact us or sign up to our newsletter to receive regular insights and updates on our research-based learning.