What is Cognitive Load Theory?

And how can it improve the way you learn?

David Weller

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Cognitive load theory explains how we process and remember information, and how too much (or too complex) information is harmful to learning. Here’s how we can manage cognitive load in our lessons, and 5 principles to reduce cognitive load for our students.

As teachers, cognitive load theory is a key principle that should inform teaching decisions we make, as it can critically affect our students’ learning outcomes.

Where did Cognitive Load Theory Come From?

Sometimes abbreviated to CLT (although don’t confuse it with ‘Communicative Language Teaching’!), cognitive load theory came from research into problem-solving by John Sweller in the 1980s.

Sweller built on previous research that showed that working memory has a limited capacity and described the relationship between working and long-term memory.

This diagram shows the rough process of processing and remembering information:

As you receive information, the senses pass some of it onto your working memory, while some is ignored (you can’t take in every detail in your field of vision!).

Your working memory might rehearse the information for clarity (or not), then it’s processed (or encoded) into your long-term memory. The same is true in reverse when you recall information that you want to use.

Your working memory acts like a gatekeeper, as it works hard to filter all the information it receives and decides which to keep.

Unfortunately, working memory isn’t that large (some people have said it’s like the RAM on a computer, whereas long-term memory is like a hard drive). So working memory can suddenly become a bottleneck when it hits its processing limit.

When our students are learning in our lessons, there are several ways that we can overload their working memory. Let’s look at the different ways this can happen.

Types of Cognitive Load

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David Weller

Lessons, stories and visuals to develop your language teaching and learning. 20 years in education, 3 books, and a twice-monthly newsletter.