Cognitive Load Theory


Cognitive load is an idea that originates in cognitive psychology and describes the various ‘efforts’ required to learn something – in other words the amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. 

Initially proposed by John Sweller in his exploration of problem solving capability, the idea has been developed to inform learning design – increasing the efficiency of learning in a given setting.

More detail

Cognitive load theory suggests that there three types of mental effort that are required in order to learn something – intrinsic, germane and extrinsic effort. If you imagine that we have a finite amount of effort to commit to learning at any given time, it becomes important to understand these different learning loads and see how they interact to impact learning in an educational setting.

Intrinsic learning load

Intrinsic learning load is the amount of effort that is required to understand the actual material being learned. It is affected by the complexity and volume of the learning material. In many ways, it is tricky to ameliorate the intrinsic learning effort as a complex concept will always be complex.

Germane learning load

Germane learning load is the amount of effort required to create a mental schema with which to store this new understanding. This will depend on prior learning, and also the context within which the new material has been presented. For example, it will be easier to create, adapt or add to a mental schema if the learning is clearly related to prior learning or to a series of related concepts. Isolated or non-contextualised material requires more effort to commit to long term memory.

Extrinsic learning load

Extrinsic learning load is the amount of effort required to engage with the learning task or material. This is a particular target for educational design, as it is easy to reduce the extrinsic learning load. For example, clearly defining the expected learning, providing activities that are aligned with the learning outcomes and assessment and providing directly relevant learning materials are all ways that the extrinsic load can be reduced. Techniques such as scaffolded learning or a spiral approach to complex issues can further lessen the load.

Although the interactions of these types of learning load are more inter-related and complex than represented in this equation, it can be useful to consider the following:

Intrinsic load + Germane load + Extrinsic load = Total learning capacity

Therefore, in order to increase the available mental effort available to satisfy one type of learning load, you need to be able to decrease the other types of learning load. This is often employed in learning design, with much effort being expended to decrease the extrinsic and sometimes germane loads, to allow for more mental effort expenditure on the intrinsic load. This means that a greater volume of more complex material can be tackled in a given learning encounter. And therefore, greater learning ‘efficiency’ is achieved.

Learning efficiency – that’s a good thing isn’t it?

From the perspective of a course designer, with a packed curriculum and lots of content that needs to be learned, learning efficiency is very important. It allows students to learn great volumes of material without becoming overloaded. Or at least it pushes them to the point where they become overloaded a little further down the line. However, it depends on what you see as the purpose of learning as to whether this is really desirable. If you want to create graduates with vast content-based knowledge banks, then this might be a bonus. However, if you want to create graduates who are prepared to learn, work and problem solve in the real world, this might not be such a boon. Reducing the extrinsic load of learning, means creating highly defined learning tasks, where all the decision making, consideration, analysis and variability is removed. As many variables as possible are controlled or boundaried, so that the student doesn’t have to think ‘about’ the task of learning, they can just get on with the learning. However, in the real world, learning opportunities, problems to be solved and projects to be completed rarely come with such boundaries. We are therefore doing our students a disservice if we prevent them from having to approach ‘raw’ problems for themselves. To design, monitor and evaluate their own learning and performance. To make mistakes, learn from them and try again. Practising self-management of those extrinsic loads is also important to help students pace and manage their own total learning effort. It should help them prevent themselves from becoming overloaded in the long term.

Learning is not just about memorising and repeating. It is not just about understanding concepts and applying them. It is not even just about analysing material and synthesising new ideas. It is also about knowing how to learn. Taking responsibility for your learning. Making choices. Working to your particular strengths and tackling your particular weaknesses. How can we expect graduates to work and learn independently after university, when during university they don’t get this opportunity or responsibility?

Isn’t increasing the extrinsic load just lazy learning design?

Lazy learning design can lead to an increased extrinsic learning load. Not creating adequate learning outcomes to guide students, being unclear around the expectations for a particular learning task or providing inadequate direction for the completion of a learning task can increase student anxiety and lead to poor outcomes. However, as mentioned above, there may be good reasons to challenge students to overcome extrinsic learning challenges in the course of their learning.

If you do increase the extrinsic load, you need to be very careful to moderate the intrinsic and/or germane load so that overall learning effort is not exceeded. It is also important to be explicit with the students about the different elements of learning that you are encouraging.

A worked example

The Live, Love, Learn approach encourages the development of independent learning and tries to create robust, self-sufficient learners who can create their own, self-aware learning and problem solving boundaries to work as efficiently as they can in any given context.

Our 3rd/4th year undergraduate course Lessons From History has many features that increase the extrinsic learning load, with this very aim in mind. However, there are also features that allow students to work in a way that decreases the intrinsic and germane loads to compensate. This creates an unusual learning experience for the students, and it doesn’t ‘feel’ to the students as though they are learning as much as they think they should. We are therefore very careful to be explicit about all the types of learning that are taking place, and reflect to the students how their self-management is improving week by week so that they can recognise this as valuable learning.

The Lessons From History course is a team based learning course and more details of the overall structure of the course can be found in the team based learning article. Broadly speaking, the students work in teams to learn about various disasters and phenomena in history to see whether we can learn anything to create a safe and sustainable future for civilisation. The structure of the course is set up in repeating cycles, so that the students move through the same series of learning activities repeatedly as they tackle new historical events.

The elements that increase the extrinsic learning load include:

  1. there is no set reading list to introduce the students to the events – the students have to create their own reading list
  2. the students have to agree in their teams what they think is a ‘core’ body of knowledge that they should know about the event – no amount in volume or depth is specified and the students have to decide how much work to do, and when to stop
  3. the students then have to choose a perspective from which to investigate the event – such as social, political, economic, or a perspective peculiar to a particular individual such as a world leader or victim – the students must ensure that their perspective is not too niche – it must be rich enough and practical enough to investigate with the sources they can find and in the time they have available
  4. the students have to write their own assignment question – if they don’t write a good question, they can’t write a good assignment

The elements that help to decrease or moderate the intrinsic and germane loads include:

  1. by creating an annotate bibliography of their readings, the students provide their peers with synopses of hundreds of relevant sources – students can then select the most relevant to follow-up for their own study
  2. all the students have access to the work of all the student teams – in this way, they self moderate in the light of the way that their peers are working – within a few cycles, the students have implicitly negotiated a ‘reasonable’ breadth, depth and volume of work to complete for each cycle
  3. the repeating and cyclical nature of the course allows students to learn by practicing without risking too much in terms of their grade – the frequent feedback means that a poor choice in one cycle will not be repeated in the next – this is the ideal form of a spiral curriculum – but here it is the learning frameworks and processes that are being spiralled rather than any content – so the germane load should lessen with each cycle
  4. writing an assignment question is harder than answering the question – but it forces the students to frame their thinking about the topic before they get too far into their research and writing – in the end, this saves them time and effort (by the end of the course, students will spend more time crafting the question than actually writing the answer)

There is anecdotal evidence that shows that students who have completed this course out-perform their peers in their subsequent disciplinary project work. They are able to self-organise, take responsibility for their learning and team working and approach framing the brief and wider project in a more creative and thoughtful way than would be anticipated.




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