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Cognitive load

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Main article: Human channel capacity

Cognitive Load' is a term that refers to the load on working memory during problem solving, thinking and reasoning (including perception, memory, language, etc.)[1]

Most would agree that people learn better when they can build on what they already understand (known as a schema). But the more a person has to learn in a shorter amount of time, the more difficult it is to process that information in working memory.

Consider the difference between having to study a subject in one's native language versus trying to study a subject in a foreign language. The cognitive load is much higher in the second instance because the brain must work to translate the language while simultaneously trying to understand the new information.

Another aspect of 'cognitive load theory involves understanding how many discrete units of information can be retained in short term memory before information loss occurs. An example that seems to be commonly cited of this principle is the use of 7-digit phone numbers, based on the theory that most people can only retain seven "chunks" of information in their short term memory. Refer to Chunking (psychology).

Cognitive Load Theory, as defined by Sweller (1988) proposes optimum learning occurs in humans when the load on working memory is kept to a minimum to best facilitate the changes in long term memory.[1]

The history of cognitive load theoryEdit

The history of cognitive load theory can be traced back to the beginning of Cognitive Science and the work of G.A. Miller (1956). Miller was perhaps the first to suggest our working memory capacity was limited in his classic paper [2]. He suggested we are only able to hold seven plus or minus two digits of information in our short term memories. Miller's early work was built upon by many researchers in the ensuing decades. Perhaps most notably by that of Simon and Chase (1973) who also used the term "chunk" to describe how experts use their short term memories. As novices learn, they begin to see patterns in the world around them.[3] These patterns can be combined with other patterns... this chunking of memory components has also been described as schema construction.

John Sweller developed cognitive load theory while studying problem solving [1]. While studying learners as they solved problems, he and his associates found that learners often use a problem solving strategy called means-ends analysis. He suggests problem solving by means-ends analysis requires a relatively large amount of cognitive processing capacity, which may not be devoted to schema construction. Instead of problem solving, Sweller suggests Instructional designers should limit cognitive load by designing instructional materials like worked-examples, or goal-free problems.

In the 1990s, Cognitive load theory was applied in several contexts and the empirical results from these studies led to the demonstration of several learning effects: the completion-problem effect [4]; Modality effect [5][6]; Split-attention effect [7]; the Worked-example effect[8] [9] and the expertise reversal effect [10].

The human cognitive architecture and Instructional designEdit

Cognitive load theory has been used to describe the architecture of human cognition. It has been suggested that Cognitive load has broad implications for Instructional design (Sweller, 1999). This theory provides a general framework for instructional designers for it allows them to control the conditions of learning within an environment or more generally within most instructional materials. Specifically it provides empirically-based guidelines that help instructional designers to minimize extraneous cognitive load during learning.

John Sweller's theory employs information processing theory to emphasize the inherent limitations of working memory. In addition it uses schemas as the relevant unit of analysis for the design of instructional materials.

This theory differentiates between three types of cognitive load: intrinsic cognitive load, germane cognitive load, and extraneous cognitive load [11]

Intrinsic cognitive loadEdit

The term "Intrinsic cognitive load" was first described by Chandler and Sweller (1991).[12] Accordingly all instruction has an inherent difficulty associated with it (e.g., the calculation of 2 + 2, versus solving a differential equation ). This inherent difficulty may not be altered by an instructor. However many schemas may be broken into individual "subschemas" and taught in isolation, to be later brought back together and described as a combined whole [13].

Extraneous cognitive loadEdit

Extraneous load is that load which instructional designers do have some ability to control. This load can be attributed to the design of the instructional materials.

Sweller provides a wonderful example of extraneous cognitive load in his 2006 book, when he describes two possible ways to describe a square to a student [13]. A square is a visual and should be described using a visual medium. Certainly an instructor can describe a square in a verbal medium, but it takes just a second and far less effort to see what the instructor is talking about when a learner is shown a square, rather than having one described verbally. In this instance, the efficiency of the visual medium is preferred. This is because it does not unduly load the learner with unnecessary information. This unnecessary cognitive load is described as extraneous cognitive load.

Germane cognitive loadEdit

Germane load was first described by Sweller, van Merrienboer and Paas in 1998.[11] It is that load devoted to the processing, construction and automation of schemata. While intrinsic load is generally thought to be immutable, instructional designers can manipulate extraneous and germane load. It is suggested that they limit extraneous load and promote germane load [11].

Type of Cognitive Load What is it? What Causes it? What's an Example? What Happens?
Intrinsic Unavoidable: the essential processing needed to attend to and represent the material Caused by the inherent complexity of the task: the more complex, the more basic processing needed More intrinsic processing needed to recognize and organize a complicated task such as quadratic equations Processing focusses attention and begins to organize learning, rote learning possible
Extraneous Avoidable or manageable: unhelpful processing needed to deal with problems that are not related to the learning task itself Caused by poor learning strategies, divided attention and distractibility, porr intruction, inadequate background knowledge Students scan back and forth bewtween the tes and a graph,  but don't know how to read the graph or intergrate the visual and verbal information inappropriate processing, no learning, possible discouragement
Germane Desirable: the deep processing (oranizing, intergrating, connecting to prior knowledge) required to generate understandings Learner motivationg to understand, make strong effort, try new strategies when first attempts fall short Learning diagrams relationships in a problem, connects to key ideas in the test appropriat organizing, elaborating, and visualizing lead to deep learning

Individual differences in processing capacityEdit

Scandura (1971) and Voorhies & Scandura (1977) found evidence that individuals systematically differ in their processing capacity. [14] [15] A series of experiments support the assumption that each individual has a fixed capacity for processing information, irrespective of the task in question, or more accurately, irrespective of the processes an individual uses in solving any given task. Tasks ranged from remembering simple lists, lists supplemented with a fixed constant and simple arithmetic.

Identifying the processing capacity of individuals could be extremely useful in further adapting instruction (or predicating the behavior) of individuals. Accordingly, further research would clearly be desirable. It should be cautioned that this type of research is very demanding. First, it is essential to compute the memory load imposed by detailed analysis of the processes to be used. Second, it is essential to insure that individual subjects are actually using those processes. The latter requires intensive pre-training.


The ergonomic approach seeks a quantitative neurophysiological expression of cognitive load which can be measured using common instruments. Fredericks T.K., Choi S.D,. Hart J., Butt S.E., and Mital A. (2005), for example, used the heart rate-blood pressure product (RPP) as a measure of both cognitive and physical occupational workload.[16] They believe that it may be possible to use RPP measures to set limits on workloads and for establishing work allowance.

Effects of heavy cognitive loadEdit

Some are:

For Further readingEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science 12 (1): 257-285.
  2. Miller, G.A. (1956). The magic number seven plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity to process information. Psychological Review 63: 81-97.
  3. Chase, W.G. & Simon, H.A. (1973). Perception in chess. Cognitive Psychology 4 (1): 55-81.
  4. Paas, F. (1992). Training strategies for attaining transfer of problem-solving skill in statistics: A cognitive-load approach. Journal of Educational Psychology 84: 429–434.
  5. Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. (1999). Cognitive principles of multimedia learning: The role of modality and contiguity. Journal of Educational Psychology 91: 358-368.
  6. Mousavi, S., Low, R., & Sweller, J. (1995). Reducing cognitive load by mixing auditory and visual presentation modes. Journal of Educational Psychology 87 (2): 319-334.
  7. Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1992). The split-attention effect as a factor in the design of instruction. British Journal of Educational Psychology 62: 233-246.
  8. Cooper, G., & Sweller, J. (1987). Effects of schema acquisition and rule automation on mathematical problem-solving transfer. Journal of Educational Psychology 79 (4): 347-362.
  9. Sweller, J., & Cooper, G. A. (1985). The use of worked examples as a substitute for problem solving in learning algebra. Cognition and Instruction 2 (1): 59-89.
  10. Kalyuga,S., Ayres,P. Chandler,P and Sweller,J. (2003). The Expertise Reversal Effect. Educational Psychologist 38 (1): 23–31.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Sweller, J., Van Merrienboer, J., & Paas, F. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review 10: 251-296.
  12. Chandler, P. & Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive Load Theory and the Format of Instruction. Cognition and Instruction 8 (4): 293-332.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., and Clark, R. E. (2006) Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist 41 (2) 75-86
  14. Scandura, J.M. (1971). Deterministic theorizing in structural learning: Three levels of empiricism.. Journal of Structural Learning: 21-53.
  15. Voorhies, D. & Scandura, J.M. (1977). "7" Determination of memory load in information processing., 299-316.
  16. Fredericks T.K., Choi S.D,. Hart J., Butt S.E., and Mital A. (2005). . International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics 35 (12): 1097-1107.

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