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Curriculum, Outstanding Lessons

Cognitive Load Theory: 5 Underpinning Principles (the Compound Effects)

Cognitive Load Theory includes compound and simple effects that can be used to improve the quality of teaching and hence learning.  Five higher order compound effects alter the characteristics of other simple cognitive load effects.

When Sweller et al (2019) wrote a revised paper on Cognitive Load Theory (twenty years after the original) they put far more emphasis on these five compound effects.  These compound effects provide underpinning principles that help explain the limits of the simple effects.  Understanding the compound effects allows teachers to reflect on their own practice.

Cognitive Load Theory proposes humans have a limited, short term working memory.  An unlimited long term memory retains and connects information.  Cognitive Load Theory is most applicable when information is new to pupils, complex and they are at a novice stage in their learning. When this is less true the limits of working memory are unlikely to be reached.

Element Interactivity Effect: Element interactivity can be altered by incorporating either more or less information depending on the expertise of the learner.  Cognitive load is reduced by limiting and sequencing the information available.

Expertise Reversal Effect: Expert learners have more complex schemas which can be readily transferred to working memory.  Instructional procedures and materials designed for novices contain information known by experts unnecessarily adding to cognitive load.

Guidance-Fading Effect: Over longer educational programmes learners gradually acquire more expertise.  This increased expertise makes information and activities required by novices redundant.  Instructional methods should change over the duration of a programme.

“Whereas the element interactivity effect pertains to low element interactivity versus high element interactivity materials, and the expertise reversal effect pertains to low expertise learners and high expertise learners, the guidance-fading effects thus pertains to the beginning of a longer educational program versus the end this program.”

Sweller et al (2019)

These three compound effects show the inter-relationships between what we teach; how we teach it and what is learnt.  A holistic perspective on content, pedagogy and the learning; what Bauersfeld (1979) referred to as the matter meant, the matter taught and the matter learnt.

Transient Information Effect: Any necessary transient information must be actively retained in working memory increasing cognitive load.  Non-transient information (e.g. a written text/diagrams) ensures all information remains available to the learner and allows for revisiting.

Self-Management Effect: Learners are taught to apply CLT principles to manage their own cognitive load.  For example, when confronted with low-quality learning materials – multiple sources of information – they reorganise them into one integrated resource. 

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




  1. Pingback: CLT 2.0 – The Teacher Scaffolding Effects | @LeadingLearner - September 20, 2020

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