top of page

Mastering Cognitive Load Theory: Optimise Learning Design for Better Learner Outcomes

We were talking in the office this week about cognitive load, yes, we really are that interesting! But it was raised as a topic as we were working on quite a complex learning programme for an apprenticeship standard, and the discussion came up the about the levels of information that learners can process. So we thought it might be helpful to explain cognitive load theory.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive load theory, developed by John Sweller in the late 1980s, is a framework that helps us understand how our cognitive system processes and stores new information. The basic idea behind cognitive load theory is that the human brain has a limited working memory capacity, which can only hold a certain amount of information at a time. When the working memory is overloaded with too much information, it becomes difficult for the brain to process and retain it effectively. This can ultimately hinder learning and performance.

In the context of designing learning experiences, cognitive load theory is particularly relevant as it provides insights into how we can optimise the presentation of information to facilitate learning. According to the theory, there are three types of cognitive load: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. Each of these types has a different impact on learning design. Let's explore each of these in more detail.

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

Intrinsic cognitive load refers to the inherent complexity of the information being learned. This type of cognitive load is unavoidable, as it is directly related to the complexity of the subject matter itself. For example, learning advanced calculus requires a higher intrinsic cognitive load than learning basic arithmetic.

In learning design, it's essential to consider the intrinsic cognitive load of the material being taught. This can be managed by breaking down complex topics into smaller, more manageable chunks, which can then be presented to learners in a structured and logical manner. By doing so, learners can gradually build upon their understanding of the material without becoming overwhelmed.

Another strategy to manage intrinsic cognitive load is scaffolding, which involves providing learners with support and guidance during the initial stages of learning a new concept. As learners gain confidence and proficiency, this support can be gradually reduced, allowing them to become more independent in their learning.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

Extraneous cognitive load refers to the additional cognitive load imposed by how information is presented rather than the complexity of the content itself. In other words, extraneous cognitive load is caused by poor instructional design.

For example, imagine learning a new language by reading a dense textbook filled with long paragraphs and small fonts. The difficulty of navigating the text and deciphering the small print would likely distract you from the actual content and impede your ability to learn effectively. This is an example of a high extraneous cognitive load.

To minimise extraneous cognitive load in learning design, it's essential to present information in a clear and concise manner. This can be achieved through the use of visual aids, such as diagrams and illustrations, which can help to clarify complex ideas and make the material more accessible.

Additionally, it's important to avoid introducing unnecessary information or distractions, which can further increase extraneous cognitive load. This can be achieved by carefully structuring the learning experience and focusing on the most essential concepts.

Germane Cognitive Load

Germane cognitive load refers to the cognitive load associated with schemas' processing, construction, and automation. Schemas are mental frameworks that help us organise and categorise information. When learning new material, our brains create and refine schemas, allowing us to better understand and recall the information in the future.

Germane cognitive load is considered beneficial, as it contributes to developing long-term memory and expertise in a given subject. In learning design, the goal is to maximise germane cognitive load by promoting deep learning and encouraging learners to engage with the material meaningfully.

To foster germane cognitive load, instructional designers can employ a variety of strategies, such as:

  • Encouraging learners to make connections between new information and their existing knowledge. This can be achieved by providing examples, analogies, or case studies that relate the material to real-life situations or prior learning experiences.

  • Providing opportunities for learners to apply their knowledge and skills in practice. This can be done through the use of problem-solving tasks, simulations, or hands-on activities that require learners to actively engage with the material and think critically about the concepts being taught.

  • Facilitating discussion and collaboration among learners. Group activities, peer-to-peer learning, and online forums can encourage learners to share their perspectives, ask questions, and challenge each other's understanding of the material. This social aspect of learning can help to deepen comprehension and reinforce key concepts.

  • Promoting self-reflection and metacognitive skills. Encouraging learners to think about their own learning processes, set goals, and evaluate their progress can help them become more aware of their cognitive load and develop strategies for managing it more effectively.

The Impact of Cognitive Load Theory on Learning Design

Understanding cognitive load theory and its three types - intrinsic, extraneous, and germane - is crucial for creating effective learning experiences. By considering the cognitive load imposed on learners, instructional designers can tailor the presentation of information to optimise learning outcomes.

In summary, to create a successful learning experience, it is important to:

  1. Manage the intrinsic cognitive load by breaking down complex topics into smaller, more manageable chunks and providing scaffolding and support when needed.

  2. Minimise extraneous cognitive load by presenting information clearly, concisely, and well-structured manner, avoiding unnecessary distractions, and using visual aids to clarify complex ideas.

  3. Maximise germane cognitive load by promoting deep learning and engagement with the material, encouraging learners to make connections, apply their knowledge, collaborate with others, and reflect on their own learning processes.

By considering these principles, instructional designers can create learning experiences that are more likely to be effective and enjoyable for learners, ultimately leading to better retention and application of knowledge. So the next time you design a learning programme or course, remember to remember cognitive load theory – your learners will thank you for it!

bottom of page