By: Paige Jennings, M.Ed.
First, it's real. And it doesn't get nearly enough air time. There’s a reason why Dylan Wiliam posted on Twitter, “I've come to the conclusion Sweller's Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know” (Wiliam, 2017). I agree. Here’s why.
In a nutshell, cognitive load theory (CLT) refers to the capacity of our working memory (Mayer, 2017). Information comes in and sensory memory either immediately discards it or moves it into working memory (Cognitive Load Theory, n.d.). Once in working memory the information is either discarded or processed further and eventually moved into long-term memory. Our working memory system also takes prior knowledge from our long-term memory and combines it with the new incoming information to develop schemas, which are organized frameworks of knowledge. This bolstered construct is sent back to long-term memory. The good news is that long-term memory is infinite.
The not-so-good news is that the capacity of our working memory is extremely limited; it can only ‘hold on’ to 3-5 chunks of information for a very short period of time (Cowan, 2010.) If working memory is overloaded with more information than it can process (cognitive overload), the information will be discarded, and not put on the path towards long-term memory. This predetermined ‘load’ is referred to as cognitive load theory (Cognitive Load Theory, n.d.).
Because of the limitations of the brain to work with no more than 3-5 chunks of new information at one time, it is important that educators design learning experiences that keep cognitive load theory in mind (pun totally intended.) We must:
Let’s look at a few concrete application examples of how to manage cognitive load.
One way teachers can reduce cognitive load is through note-taking. Any time a student is learning something new, writing information down has the potential of reducing cognitive load because they are not trying to hold all of the new information in their working memory (Nuckles, Roelle, Glogger-Frey, Waldeyer, & Renkl, 2020). As the lesson continues, students can continue to pay attention, knowing that the previous information is not ‘lost.’ They can refer back to it anytime. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night and had to write something down so you were sure to remember it the next day, you understand this feeling of relief that the information has been ‘captured.’ You can let it go and go back to sleep just like our students can let it go and pay attention to the next part of the lesson.
Worked examples can also reduce cognitive load, particularly for students who are learning brand new information or learning information that is particularly complex. Worked problems help reduce cognitive load by freeing up space in working memory. Students don’t have to ‘hold on’ to all of the details of the problem. They can study one aspect of how it’s solved and easily reference various parts as needed while they acquire the new information. As future examples are scaffolded to include less help, students can reference back to completed examples to check their understanding and identify and correct errors.
Chunking information also reduces cognitive load (Thalman, Souza, & Oberauer, 2019) When similar material is combined into one chunk, working memory can hold that one chunked unit instead of the individual components that make it up. Imagine if you were going to the grocery store and had to remember 7 items: apples, cucumbers, broccoli, bananas, lettuce, strawberries and cauliflower. Chunking them into fruits (apples, bananas and strawberries) and veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber and lettuce) would help you remember more easily since fruits and vegetables are known constructs in your brain and would count as 2 ‘chunks’ of information instead of the initial 7 individual food items.
Cognitive load theory also explains why students need memorized, factual knowledge (information that is stored in long-term memory) in order to think critically and creatively. Because working memory can only hold between three and five units of information, a robust amount of content-specific knowledge must be stored in long-term memory so that there is enough space available in working memory to creatively and critically think about that information (e.g., making new connections, analyzing information, etc). Willingham points out, “Critical thinking is not a set of skills and strategies that can be directly taught, practiced, and applied to any topic. Students need deep knowledge of a subject in order to think creatively or critically about it” (2016, p.1).
Cognitive load theory affects every aspect of learning. Educators must always keep working memory capacity at the forefront of our lesson planning and ask: what can we get rid of that doesn’t matter (reduce extraneous load), how can we help students manage what does matter (manage essential load) and how can we connect what matters into existing schema and move it into our infinite storehouse of long-term memory (increase germane load or learning)? We got this.
Cowan, N. (2010). The Magical Mystery Four: How is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 51. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721409359277
Cognitive Load Theory on My Mind - The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Retrieved July 24, 2022, from https://www.thecttl.org/2021/07/29/cognitive-load-theory/
Mayer, R. E. (2017). Instruction Based on Visualizations. In Handbook of Research on Learning and Instruction. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203839089.ch21.
Nückles, M., Roelle, J., Glogger-Frey, I., Waldeyer, J., & Renkl, A. (2020). The Self-Regulation-View in Writing-to-Learn: Using Journal Writing to Optimize Cognitive Load in Self-Regulated Learning. In Educational Psychology Review (Vol. 32, Issue 4). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-020-09541-1
Thalmann, M., Souza, A. S., & Oberauer, K. (2019). How does chunking help working memory? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition, 45(1), 37–55. https://doi.org/10.1037/XLM0000578
Wiliam, D. (2017). I’ve come to the conclusion Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know http://bit.ly/2kouLOq. Twitter.
Willingham, D. T. (2016). Knowledge Matters Knowledge and Practice: The Real Keys to Critical Thinking. 1. www.KnowledgeMattersCampaign.org
Paige Jennings is the Professional Development Coordinator for Weld Re-4 School District. She has a Master's degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Northern Colorado and a graduate certificate in Mind, Brain and Teaching from Johns Hopkins University.