Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory addresses the amount of mental work required of a learner, and makes a distinction between working memory and long-term memory. Working memory refers to one’s capacity for processing information at any given moment, while long-term memory refers to what can be recalled for use in working memory. The capacity of working memory and its duration of storage is very limited compared to long-term memory.

The limitation of working memory was clearly articulated by George Miller in 1956. He asserted that, in general, people could hold seven items plus or minus two, in their working memory at one time. These items can be discreet, such as a grocery list, or complex, such as a set of courses in a curriculum. With complex items, chunking is required such that the details are contained in the overall course as an item. When the specifics of one course are considered, all other courses must leave working memory for the moment. This has relevance for applied learning activities when considering how many active items a learner must manipulate, and what is the learner’s capacity for and experience with chunking.

Cognitive Load Theory identifies three types of cognitive load that are additive in their overall cognitive demand placed on a learner. These loads are referred to as Intrinsic, Extraneous, and Germane.

Intrinsic cognitive load is the mental work that working memory must do that is inherent in the learning activity. The amount of work is determined by such characteristics as the number, complexity, and interactions of the elements in the activity. The experience of intrinsic load for a new activity is relative to a learner’s preexisting cognitive ability. A new, more complex problem will have a greater intrinsic load than a similar problem encountered previously.

Extraneous cognitive load is any mental work that is not directly related to the learning activity. Examples include: unclear directions, missing resources, contention within a learning group, or inaccurate or incomplete data. Of course, for advanced learners, an applied learning activity may intentionally include many of these real-world constraints.

Germane cognitive load is the mental work of learning, which is not the same as the intrinsic cognitive load for completing a learning activity. Germane cognitive load is the useful mental work of extending and refining one’s schema, and reflecting on the general principles of the learning activity. This reflection includes relating the learning activity to other activities, and refining the cognitive processes and strategies that were used in the activity.

For learning to occur, the additive work of an applied learning activity’s intrinsic, extraneous, and germane cognitive loads cannot exceed a learner’s working memory.

Effective applied learning activities from a cognitive load perspective

Effective applied learning activities: 1) impose a manageable intrinsic cognitive load, 2) minimize extraneous cognitive load, 3) provide adequate time for the germane cognitive load of reflection and incorporation, and 4) are presented in a relevant real-world context. This means that a single activity should be challenging, but not defeating. It also means that a series of activities should incrementally increase in complexity at a rate that is manageable by learners.

Learning is also enhanced when unintentional extraneous cognitive load is minimized, and a learning activity provides additional guidance on its relevance to learners. This guidance emphasizes why the learning objectives of the activity are valuable enough for learners to invest the time and energy incorporating them into their mental schemas.

Survival mode

Unfortunately, the use of applied learning activities does not end well when the limits of cognitive load are not considered. One can easily predict a disastrous learning outcome when learners are presented with an activity that has an intrinsic cognitive load that: 1) vastly exceeds their mental model and cognitive strategies, 2) is unclear in its requirements and/or relevance, and 3) leaves no time for reflection and incorporation into their mental schema. When this occurs, learning stops and surviving begins.

When learners fall back into survival mode they generate enough of a “solution” to an applied learning activity to receive an acceptable grade. Of course, this behavior is completely understandable because regardless of the authentic real-world learning activity with which learners are presented, they are always functioning within their own larger authentic real-world task of completing the program of study. After all, the question of “What will learners be able to do when they graduate?” is only relevant for those who do. And for those learners who survive their way to graduation, the question remains, “How much better could they have been prepared to address the world’s challenges if issues during their education such as cognitive load had been considered?”

Survival mode in an educational setting is not limited to learners. Educators and administrators must contend with numerous competing priorities with often conflicting reward structures. Just as quality learning takes time and effort, that should be rewarded with competence, quality teaching takes time and effort as well, and should be rewarded with compensation.