Cognitive Load Theory is increasingly impacting on teachers. Its latest inclusion being in the Early Career Framework. Alongside its wider impact on policy, it is featuring in professional development programmes, influencing people’s thinking and hopefully their approach to teaching. At its heart, it is a theory about instructional (teaching) design.
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.
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.
Sweller et al (2019) 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.
Three Types of Cognitive Load & Scaffolding Effects
There are three types of cognitive load. Intrinsic cognitive load is affected by the complexity of the information (element interactivity) and expertise of the learner. The more complex the information and the more novice the learner the greater the cognitive load. Germane cognitive load constitutes the processing capacity within working memory to aid learning. Intrinsic load and germane cognitive load are intertwined and work to aid learning.
Extraneous cognitive load is associated with teaching and how materials are presented. Where the teaching or course design lacks clarity or precision the extraneous cognitive load is increased. This redirects the processing capacity in working memory – germane cognitive load – away from learning.
Worked Example Effect
Worked examples provide a full solution to a problem. This focuses the learners’ attention on the steps required to solve it, enabling them to induce generalised solutions.
Effective when used alongside worked examples. Learners respond to prompts that require them to explain the process and workings used to solve the problem. It ensures learners carefully study the worked example.
Completion Problem Effect
Partially completed problems are provided to learners who are required to complete them; the amount of work required by the learner can be varied. This forms a bridge between worked examples and conventional problems.
Goal free problems lower cognitive load and increase the focus on finding solutions by removing the cognitive load associated with holding and processing: a current problem state, a goal state and problem-solving operators.
Studying variable questions/problems increases intrinsic cognitive load. However, learners gain domain knowledge of similarities and differences; this approach enhances the germane element of cognitive load leading to greater learning.
The imagination effect occurs when learners imagine or mentally rehearse a concept or process. This is only appropriate once learners have secure prior knowledge; if not working memory will be exceeded.
Collective Working Memory Effect
When learners collaborate on a complex task or problem their multiple limited working memories (and information stored in long term memory) are pooled to form a single information storage and processing system.
Classification of the cognitive load effects into a group relating to scaffolding is mine. It is not in the original or revised paper. However, there are five higher order compound effects identified that alter the characteristics of the other simple cognitive load effects. These compound effects provide underpinning principles that help explain the limits of the simple effects.
Reference: Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J. and Paas, F. (2019). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later. Educational Psychology Review.