Cognitive Load Theory

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By Sarah Stevenson, MA- The Tini Yogini

Educational psychologist John Sweller is the father of cognitive load theory (CLT), which describes the amount of effort and how much working memory one can hold at any one period of time (Sweller, 1988). CLT is based on the human information processing model that includes sensory memory, short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory and how these parts work together (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968). Research in CLT is incredibly beneficial for educators, especially in this technological age when humans have so much competition for their attention and working memory. Here is a detailed look at the brain according to cognitive load theory and the human information processing model.

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Individuals take in information from the world around them through the senses, and memories are formed, or information is discarded during this interaction. Sensory memory is processed quickly through the nervous system and consists of iconic (seeing), haptic (touch), echoic (hearing), olfactory (smell), and gustatory (taste) (Pratte, 2018; Sperling, 1960). If the stimuli presented is recognized, it will move to the short-term memory, if it is not, it will be lost and forgotten.

Once the stimuli pass through the senses, they move to the short-term (primary, active) memory, where the mind can hold information and keep it accessible for a short period of time, ranging from about fifteen to thirty seconds (Paas & Sweller, 2012). According to research, short-term memory can only hold about seven pieces of information, give or take one or two (Cowen, 2008; Miller, 1956). If short-term memories have any chance of moving to the long term, they must be actively preserved through focused attention and rehearsal (Ginns & Leppink, 2019).

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Long-term memory stores information for an indefinite extended time frame. Information stored in the long-term memory will be recalled anywhere from hours, days, or even years after it is processed (Sweller, 1988). Long-term memory stores this information in schemas. Schemas are thought patterns and memories that have been chunked into categories by the working memory to simplify storage in the long-term memory bank (Paas & Sweller, 2012). Individuals begin to build these schemas from an early age, and they continue to form and change throughout a lifetime. Schemas help humans understand the world around them by drawing on past experiences to help them understand a novel experience. The working memory sometimes accesses schemas automatically because this is not done with a conscious effort the working memory does not feel the load (Geary, 2002). Schemas can also negatively impact an individual through stereotyping and getting locked into phobias and fears (Goodboy et al., 2016).

Working memory has the limited ability to store information and is responsible for decision making and reasoning (Alloway, & Alloway, 2013). The working memory decides what will move to the long-term memory and what will be forgotten and discarded. Working memory can also pull information from the long-term memory and apply it to situations at hand. Cognitive load is the amount of information the working memory can hold.

This cognitive load can show up in an intrinsic form related to the complexity of a topic and whether or not learning can connect to pre-formed schemas in the mind. Cognitive load can also show up in an extrinsic form which relates to how information is being offered to the learner and can include exterior components like the noise level of an environment and the amount of material being presented. Last is a germane cognitive load that refers to the amount of work (how easy or difficult) one must carry out to create schemas with the presented information (Klepsch et al., 2017).

Biological primary information like face recognition (Bentin et al., 1999) and learning to speak the native language comes automatically (Kuhl, 2000), puts no cognitive load on the working memory, and is considered an evolutionary strength to carrying on the species. Biological secondary information (culturally important, not acquired automatically through evolution) requires conscious effort to obtain and retain knowledge in the long-term memory and creates large amounts of cognitive load on the working memory (Geary, 2002).

As seen in Figure 1 below, environmental stimuli are presented; the stimuli pass through the senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste) and are processed by the nervous system that transfers the information to short-term memory. If the stimuli are focused on and rehearsed or align with a schema that currently exists, they will move to the long-term memory, where the information can be accessed in working memory for hours, days or years to come (Barefoot TEFL Teacher, n.d.).

Benefits and Research of Cognitive Load Theory

            Cognitive Load Theory benefits humans in many ways. CLT helps education because it considers designing a curriculum that includes only the necessary pieces of information. Research shows that working memory is expanded when learning draws on existing schemas (knowledge), allowing for a deeper understanding of what would typically be complex information (van Kesteren & Meeter, 2020). Clear, straightforward lesson plans enable the brain to use the least amount of effort by building on pre-formed schemas (van Kesteren & Meeter, 2020). Teachers must learn to present only the information directly related to learning to avoid overloading the working memory (Wilson, 2019).

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Educators can create better learning environments, and employers can create better work environments by administering assessments to learn the individuals’ strengths and expertise to increase working memory that draw from pre-formed schemas (Ogba et al., 2020). One of Bandura’s tools for self-efficacy is mastery of skills, individuals who can build on pre-formed strengths will have a symbiotic relationship with the tasks at hand that will increase self-confidence (Bandura, 1977). The goal is to work smarter, not harder and CLT offers this.

Current research suggests less load can be placed on the working memory by decreasing the number of competing stimuli for attention in one’s environment (Ford, 2016). New and exciting classroom designs are rising in education to benefit the learner (Teach Thought, n.d). When a classroom has a poor design, and too many stimuli are competing for a person’s sensory attention, learning opportunities are lost (Ginns & Leppink, 2019). Controlling the climate, air quality, offering a clean, organized environment, and appropriate lighting will benefit an individual’s learning experience.

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Innovative researchers impassioned to create new ways to elucidate learning are beginning to apply CLT concepts in their explorations. A recent study (Li, 2020) looked at priming students for flexible thinking by decreasing cognitive fixation brought on by past schemas (Smith, 2003) with the tool of encouraging ‘magic thinking’ to incite the imagination. Creative thinking is associated with a flexible mindset that allows individuals to access new ideas when faced with unfamiliar encounters, decreasing anxiety and expanding learning opportunities to develop long-term memory (Middleton, 2015).

Limitations and Challenges of Cognitive Load Theory

 Cognitive load theory is an incredible tool for streamlining learning and processing information when understood and applied appropriately, but the theory is not void of flaws. According to research, it is nearly impossible to measure how much cognitive load any one person can hold, which creates an issue with internal bias and external validity (Naismith & Cavalcanti, 2015; Rahi, 2017). It is difficult to generalize results gained from a research study if each person has a unique level of cognitive load tolerance (Patino & Ferreira, 2018).

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Educators today have the specific challenge of balancing overcrowded classrooms because of budget cuts and overpopulation (Jackson et al., 2020). It is unfair to place the task of building individual education plans for each student’s specific cognitive load on the teacher’s shoulders. The amount of responsibility placed on teachers today is causing them to retire and choose other career paths, and today’s children will be negatively affected by this (Oberle et al., 2020; Su et al., 2020).

Building on the concept that each person’s cognitive load capacity is unique, it is unfair to overgeneralize CLT to all individuals. Less cognitive load in certain humans may allow for better learning opportunities, while less cognitive load for others may decrease the amount of learning that is taking place (Ford, 2016). What is suitable for one is not necessarily good for all.

CLT must be paired with other collaborative learning techniques if it has any chance of having a quantifiable positive relationship in a classroom setting (Kirschner et al., 2018). The theory is limited in that it is unable to stand alone in its application to group settings. Further research needs to move towards the natural environment and finding the best teaching strategies that can collaborate with CLT to build the most generalizable learning tools for students in all degrees of education (Chen et al., 2018; Mancinetti et al., 2019).


Cognitive load theory opens one’s eyes to the pitfalls and abilities of the human processing system (Sweller, 1988). Knowing how the brain takes in material from the senses, allows or disallows it into the short-term memory, passing it on to the working memory and depositing it into the long-term memory or discarding the information entirely is a fascinating system that needs to be studied deeper. With an adequate understanding of the theory, one could help others through education, therapy, and training to live their best lives in a conscious, well-thought-out way.


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By The Tini Yogini

I hold a Masters degree in psychology with an emphasis in behavior modification & have worked with individuals in the public & private sector for 20 years. I am a certified Yoga Instructor RYT & sole proprietor of my own health and wellness business for the last 14 years built from the ground up. I implement Cognitive Behavior Therapy theories to help clients eliminate self-destructive unconscious behavior patterns and replace them with positive life affirming behavior patterns. I am also a professional writer and have spent the last 10 years writing articles about implementing research-based behavior strategies to positively enhance one’s life. I teach workshops throughout the United States that teach individuals how to flourish and thrive.

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