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Cognitive Load Theory Updated; 20 Years On – Implications for Teachers and Teaching

This is the second part of a post; the first part is: Cognitive Load Theory Updated; 20 Years On – Our Cognitive Architecture (with a downloadable resource by Oliver Caviglioli). 

Twenty years ago a number of suggestions were made to reduce the extraneous load when teaching; a number of these will be familiar.  It’s important to note that all these suggestions are based on the premise that the information is new to the learner, complex and they are novices.  Where this is less true the theory is less applicable; the limits of working memory are unlikely to be reached.

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

Ways of presenting materials that would help reduce the overall cognitive load are: replace multiple sources of information split over space (eg. different pages of a book) or time with one integrated resource (Split-Attention Effect) and replace multiple sources of the same information with one (Redundancy Effect).  The Modality Effect suggests the replacement of two visual sources of information (unimodal) with one visual and one auditory (multimodal).

“The modality effect is based on the assumption that working memory can be subdivided into partially independent processors, one dealing with verbal materials based on an auditory working memory and one dealing with diagrammatic/pictorial information based on a visual working memory. Consequently, effective working memory capacity can be increased by using both visual and auditory working memory rather than either processor alone.”

In terms of tasks: giving pupils fully worked examples (the Worked Example Effect) to show how a solution could be reached; followed by the use of partial solutions (the Completion Problem Effect) in which pupils have to complete the missing elements and tasks that do not have a specified end point (goal) with one that is goal free (the Goal Free Effect) are all effective strategies.

The 2019 paper builds on the above strategies but builds in greater nuance.  Some are common sense to experienced teachers, for example, the Isolated Elements Effect proposes breaking down a complex piece of learning into smaller sequential information/tasks.  However, there are others which brings in a greater range of strategies than many might not readily associate with Cognitive Load Theory but will be invaluable in designing longer units of learning or full courses.

Oliver Caviglioli is currently working his usual magic on this; I’ll upload the graphic and PDF once it is finished

Guidance Fading Effect – Over the course of an extended programme of learning the intention is to increase pupils’ expertise within a particular domain; strategies that are effective at the beginning are less effective or even counterproductive by the end of the programme.  Teachers need to plan to move from worked examples or partial solution/completion tasks to problem solving.  There is also a place for collaborative working due to the aptly named

Collective Working Memory Effect; collaboration increases the overall working memory and information available in long term memory to the group to solve a problem.  My word of caution here would be that too often groups of pupils are asked to work on tasks that are too simple; they would be better off completing them individually.  Make sure the task given a group is sufficiently challenging and complex.

There are a series of effects that I’d tend to group under metacognition: The Self-Management Effect is built on the assumption that pupils taught to apply Cognitive Load Theory principles themselves – for example, to redesign or design materials which are poorly produced – can manage their own cognitive load.  Teachers can explicitly teach the principles and model good practice.

The Self-Explanation Effect utilises worked example with pupils provided with self-explanation prompts which require them to explain their approach.  This could alternatively be approached using The Imagination Effect requires pupils to imagine or mentally rehearse a concept or process, for example, the steps to solving a problem.  This is more suitable to pupils as they gain expertise; at a novice stage the imagination exercise is likely to overload working memory.

Much of the above brings you neatly to an understanding of Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction; look out for Tom Sherrington’s new book; out in May 2019 but available for pre-order (and no I’m not on commission!)


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



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