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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 – see below). 

Twenty years ago a number of principles and strategies were developed, as part of Cognitive Load Theory, aimed at reducing the extraneous cognitive load when teaching.  It’s important to note that these are based on the premise that the information is new to the pupils (they are novices) and the information is complex (it has high element interactivity).  Where this is less true then 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.

Two key ideas to understand when looking at the implications of Cognitive Load Theory on teaching are:

Expertise Reversal Effect – As pupils become more expert, what starts off as multiple interacting elements of knowledge begin to be organised and linked together in a relational way as ideas and these in turn into larger concepts.  The effects described in the table below benefit novices; as expertise (conceptual understanding increases) the effects disappear or are even reversed.

Guidance Fading Effect – Over the course of an extended programme of learning pupils’ expertise within a particular domain should increase.  As it does, information and activities that are effective for novices, at the beginning of a course of study, become a distraction and place an unnecessary extraneous cognitive load on more expert learners.

Cognitive Load Theory 2.0 – Implications for Instruction & Course Design – PDF (Downloadable)

In the graphic above I have suggested a sequence for the various effects (going from left to right) as pupils gain expertise (knowledge).  It is however important to remember that the effects all appertain to novice learners or those at the beginning of a longer programme of study.

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) is a reasonable sequence linked to their growing expertise.

The Isolated Elements Effect, common sense to experienced teachers, proposes breaking down a complex piece of learning into smaller sequential information/tasks that can be taught separately.  The Variability Effect increases the intrinsic cognitive load potential, so as long as the total cognitive load stays within limits, the variable problems presented allows pupils to identify similar relevant features (general principles) that can be applied.

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; it links well to problem solving approaches.

There are a series of effects that I’d tend to group under metacognition or self-regulation: The Self-Explanation Effect utilises worked example (see above) 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.  The latter is more suitable to pupils as they gain expertise; at a novice stage the imagination exercise is likely to overload working memory.

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.  For example, 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.”


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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