you're reading...

Cognitive Load Theory Updated; 20 Years On – Our Cognitive Architecture

Cognitive Load Theory is increasingly influencing people’s thinking and hopefully will also influence their approach to teaching.  At its heart, it is a theory about instructional (teaching) design.  I find it useful for the classroom; it chimes with me as an ex-Science Teacher.

Sweller et al (2019) updated paper, Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later is an interesting read.  I wouldn’t describe it as light reading though others might; it depends how expert you are in the field.

The basic proposition of Cognitive Load Theory is: if our teaching aligns with how our pupils’ cognitive architecture is designed then learning will be enhanced.  It is based on the idea that we have a working memory that can hold a limited amount of information for a limited time and an unlimited long term memory.  The retention and connection of information in the long term memory transforms our ability to function as this overcomes the limits of our working memory.  The challenge is how to acquire increasing amounts of useful information in our long term memory and access it readily when needed.

For people familiar with the original work the three different types of cognitive load – intrinsic (related to the complexity of the material being studied and expertise of the learner); extraneous (how the information is presented) and germane (the working memory committed to the learning) – has been amended with the intrinsic and germane working load now considered to be “closely intertwined” rather than two separate summative elements.

Human Cognitive Architecture

Sweller et al (2019) have developed aspects of their theory using advances in knowledge in Evolutionary Psychology.  Biologically primary knowledge is knowledge that we have evolved to acquire over countless generations: learning how to listen and speak, recognising faces, solving unfamiliar problems and making plans for future events.  Our cognitive systems have evolved to allow us to acquire these skills automatically and with limited effort.

Biologically secondary knowledge is knowledge we need because our culture has determined it is important.  Our cognitive systems have not evolved separate structures or systems to enable us to acquire this information.  We learn this secondary knowledge by piggy backing on to the cognitive structures and systems used to acquire biological primary knowledge.  Our most effective teaching methods require alignment of knowledge acquisition with the five basic biological principles. 

Download PDF – Human Cognitive Architecture

Next post – Cognitive Load Theory Updated; 20 Years On – Implications for Teachers & Teaching


Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J. and Paas, F. (2019). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later. Educational Psychology Review. (Sweller2019_Article_CognitiveArchitectureAndInstru)



5 thoughts on “Cognitive Load Theory Updated; 20 Years On – Our Cognitive Architecture

  1. A few queries:

    1. Why is cognitive load theory so often equated with cognitive architecture? Cognitive load is only a small part of cognitive architecture.

    2. Why is LTM described as overcoming the limits of working memory? LTM has a much greater capacity than WM, but anything retrieved from LTM has to be retained in WM in order for it to be used. Cognitive load isn’t relevant only to new information.

    3. What evidence is there that the distinction between biologically primary and biologically secondary is a clear one?

    4. Why are the principles described as *biological* ones? They’re all at the cognitive level.

    5. What’s the origin of the Randomness as Genesis principle? Very little information is totally novel (except to young babies), so the test & evaluate process won’t be anything like random.

    Thanks in advance for responses.

    Posted by logicalincrementalism | February 10, 2019, 7:16 am
    • With respect to 1. the cognitive architecture described in the paper is generic and not just linked or limited to CLT; CLT does relate to cognitive architecture though, so it’s reasonable for there to be a link. Number 2. is detailed in the paper – basically it’s the number of different elements that limits working memory; one large concept (many related ideas; each made up of many individual facts) once in long term memory seems to place similar cognitive load as one much smaller individual fact. For 3, the distinction may not be totally clear in every case but there might be some general agreement about categorising most/many things we seek to learn. Number 4 (the term is from the paper) but as in this case it relates to humans’ thinking then biological seems very reasonable as a description. And 5 (again from the paper but I’m uncertain of its origin) maybe from CLT or from evolutionary psychology; I wouldn’t agree that very little information is new (except to young babies) but the wider point about whether our actions are totally random or have some basis in our experience is a good debate.

      Posted by LeadingLearner | February 12, 2019, 2:56 pm
  2. 1. I’m not suggesting CLT isn’t linked to our cognitive architecture; I felt the post gives the impression they are one and the same thing. As if WM & LTM are all that’s involved in cognition.

    2. Chunking – multiple items being treated as one – applies to highly similar simple items. Is there any evidence of WM treating, say, cell division, or the causes of the Thirty Years War as smaller individuals facts?

    3. In psychology the concept of ‘modularity’ has been highly contentious for decades. Who is it who agrees on biologically primary/secondary knowledge?

    4. Human functioning can be described at different levels of abstraction; sub-atomic, atomic, molecular, cellular, biological, cognitive, behavioural etc … The ‘biological principles’ presented are all at the cognitive level. I still don’t understand why they’re described as biological.

    5. Depends what you mean by information. I’m using it in the information theory sense of resolution of uncertainty. I think you’re using it in the sense of new knowledge.

    I’m aware that the blogpost is simply summarising the paper, and there are ideas in the paper that would be useful to teachers. But the paper appears to gloss over some issues that are quite contentious in cognitive psychology, and there’s no comment on those issues.

    Posted by logicalincrementalism | February 14, 2019, 6:34 am


  1. Pingback: Cognitive Load Theory Updated; 20 Years On – Implications for Teachers and Teaching | @LeadingLearner - February 10, 2019

  2. Pingback: Evidence Informed Curriculum Planning #rEDBlackpool2019 | @LeadingLearner - March 28, 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Leadership: Being, Knowing, Doing (New Book)

Liminal Leadership


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 32,090 other subscribers
Follow @LeadingLearner on WordPress.com

Blog Stats

  • 1,605,563 hits


%d bloggers like this: