What is ‘Cognitive Load Theory’?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

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Accompanying video (What is ‘Cognitive Load Theory’?):

It was a cold winter morning in Bangor, North Wales (UK). The year was 2004, and I was a second-year molecular biology bachelor’s student at Bangor University. My professor had given my group of students the task of finding a genetics-related research paper from any academic journal in the library, and then breaking it down into simple language so that we could present our findings to the rest of the class.

The task was incredibly difficult! In fact, it was so difficult, that it’s up there with one of the most cognitively demanding tasks I’ve ever completed. The paper our group selected centered-on ‘apoptosis’ (that’s when cells basically ‘commit suicide’), but the context and language of the paper was so specialized that the majority of what was written in it went right over our heads. The research had been written by PhD-level and post-doctoral experts and specialists.

We we’re 21-year-old kids who’d recently finished our ‘A’ – Levels.

Nowadays, educational experts would argue that the ‘cognitive load’ of the paper was too much for us to glean anything significant from it. We didn’t even have the language skills to understand what most of the paper was describing.

Difficulty vs. Pace

Cognitive Load Theory is a research-based tool for assessing the difficulty and pace of the tasks, assignments and instruction we deliver in-class to our students. In essence, when difficulty is high and pace is fast, then the cognitive load is high. When difficulty is low, and the pace is slow, then the cognitive load is also low.

That’s a very simplified synopsis, however. According to Mindtools.com, Cognitive Load Theory “takes a scientific approach to the design of learning materials, so that they present information at a pace and level of complexity that the learner can fully understand.”

“An AMAZING book!”

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) builds on earlier models of memory and knowledge retention (such as the Atkinson and Shiffrin model of human information processing) and was developed in 1998 by psychologist John Sweller. The theory is considered to be the most modern and ‘up-to-date’ explanation of how memory is developed and stored. In the past 5 or so years, the theory has gained momentum and popularity in teaching circles, thanks in some part to Dylan William’s iconic tweet of 2017:

I’ve taken the excellent image below from a 2015 research paper by Edwards, Aris and Shukor, and I’ve modified it slightly to highlight what I believe to be the key takeaways:

Key points to bear in-mind about CLT:

  • Keep unnecessary, superfluous material to a minimum (e.g. news articles that may be topical and interesting, but link tentatively to the content that the kids actually need to learn for the final exam).
  • Increase exposure to actual, relevant learning material (this is called ‘intrinsic load’). This may include textbook sections, websites, learning software and summaries.
  • Present information through all of the senses (use movement, action, practical activities and outdoor activities where possible). See my blog posts on outdoor learning and spatial learning for more tips on how to embed this.
  • Practice, practice and practice some more! Use past-exam paper questions, quizzes (e.g. Kahoot!, Quizlet and BBC Bitesize), textbook questions and exam-style questions to really get the students to process the information they have learned. This is called ‘Germane load’, and it must be maximized in order to create long-term memory.

Recommended video

UKEd Academy discussion on Cognitive Load Theory with Steve Garnett (author of Cognitive Load Theory: A handbook for teachers):

Bibliography and references

Mind Tools Content Team (2016) Cognitive Load Theory. Available at https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/cognitive-load-theory.htm (Accessed 18th October 2020)

Atkinson, R.C.; Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). “Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes”. In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T. (eds.). The psychology of learning and motivation2. New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

Edwards, B., Aris, B., Shukor, M. (2015). “Cognitive Load Implications of Social Media in Teaching and Learning”. Journal of Multidisciplinary Engineering Science and Technology (JMEST). Vol. 2 Issue 11, November – 2015.

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High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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