What is Cognitive Load Theory in the Classroom?

Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom is the application of an instructional theory that is based on human cognitive learning functions. It looks at the various aspects of working memory, long-term memory, and how the teacher’s instructions account for these factors. Put simply, cognitive load is the kind of information held by the working-memory at any given time. And Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom is how teachers can get the most from their children’s learning while in school.

Cognitive Load Theory: Research that teachers really need to understand

Cognitive Load Theory provides an explanation of how students absorb new information. Our memory has a limited capacity to learn and it is very easy to overload with new information. Teachers often use this theory to help them dictate how new subject information is delivered to students as it can vastly alter learning outcomes. Essentially, it’s all about how teachers adapt their lessons to cater to their students’ working memory.

The theory came out of John Sweller’s research into problem-solving in the 1980s. Sweller wanted to understand the ways in which humans gain knowledge and how the cognitive load can be reduced to retain information for longer.

Cognitive Load Theory looks at the detailed relationship between what is called the ‘working memory’ and the ‘long-term memory.’ Without the ability to process information in the working memory, that data won’t make it to the long-term memory banks. As a result, this information will not be recalled later.

In order to combat this, Sweller found that by implementing instructional design theories to suit the needs of the learner, the cognitive capacity to retain information can be greatly increased.

What are the 3 Types of Cognitive Load?

Cognitive Load Theory breaks up cognitive load into three areas: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. Let’s take a closer look at each one.


This relates to the difficulty of a subject or information that the learner is absorbing. For example, single-digit addition tends to require a lower intrinsic cognitive load than long division. As a result, intrinsic cognitive load is difficult to manipulate in classes of mixed ability. Although it’s necessary to consider when you begin teaching new topics to students.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

This type of cognitive load refers to the kinds of materials you use and the type of learning environment the students work in. Extraneous learning accounts for the quality of materials available to the teacher and accounts it accounts for distractions that might affect the learner negatively.

Germane Cognitive Load

And finally, we have Germane Cognitive Load. This is the moment when learning finally clicks and the working memory links new ideas and information to the long-term memory. If students already have knowledge of a subject it makes the Germane loading stage much more effective.

These areas of cognitive learning help to highlight the importance of balanced learning. Each type of learning must be considered so students can take information from the working memory to long-term memory.

How Can I Prevent Cognitive Overload in the Classroom?

Working memory is very limited. Once overloaded it struggles to function properly and makes processing new information very hard. As such, we, as teachers, must be conscientious of what we are asking our students to take on board. By organising lessons thoughtfully we can help students prevent cognitive overload in the classroom.

Here are some simple tips for preventing cognitive overload in your classroom:

  •         Make sure to include information that’s already in students’ long term memory. Working memory allows for limited interaction with new elements. However, long-term memory is unlimited. This means that the more elements your students have in their long-term memory the easier it is to keep learning.
  •         Only include information directed at the learning goal. If your students are faced with unnecessary details, such as irrelevant anecdotes or animations, it can easily overload your students’ capacity to learn.
  •         Encourage students to combine new information with the concepts and ideas they’ve already learned. If a student can relate a piece of knowledge to something they’ve already understood then it makes getting the information across much easier.

Cognitive Load Theory Educational Video

If you would like to learn more about the cognitive load theory and how you can apply it in your classroom then check out this handy educational video. 

The information above came from the New Zealand Twinkl Teachers website to view the full article click here

To Learn more

Cognitive Load Theory: Research that teachers really need to understand

Taken from the New South Wales Government Education Website  

Cognitive load theory in practice

Taken from the New South Wales Government Education Website