Cognitive Load Theory: Understanding This Process

Imagine I placed a massive 5,000-page dictionary right on the table and said: “You have until the end of the day to memorize every single word and definition in this book”. I can guarantee that 95% of the readers just thought “Lol yeah ok, I couldn’t do that in my wildest dreams”. Why couldn’t you do it? It is just a book. The anatomic brain undergoes numerous cognitive processes and changes in order for humans to have a learned understanding of information. Unfortunately, this task is impossible to most. However, there are certain learning strategies and tricks you can engage in to help you retain more words in the dictionary then you normally would. The Cognitive Load Theory suggests breaking down information at a comprehensible speed and organization. It is optimal for learning, without overwhelming our brains.

Cognitive Load Theory
Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory: Information Processing Theory

In order to be able to accurately understand the Cognitive Load Theory, it is very beneficial to have a basic understanding of the Information Processing Theory. This theory focuses on the main idea that how we learn new information is comparable to how a computer stores information. The Information Processing Theory breaks down the mechanisms of how we learn, remember and encode information into three sequential steps that describe the abilities of each type of memory.

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Step 1: Sensory Memory –  In Sensory Memory, our brain identifies bits of information from the outside world through our senses, that is coded into information that our brain can store. New information initially passes through here unconsciously for a very short duration. Our brain first records information we want to remember briefly in sensory memory. It cannot process all of the information that comes in through sensory memory, most of the information that comes through is not encoded and is forgotten.

Step 2: Short Term Memory – In Short Term Memory, any information taken from sensory information is encoded and stored here briefly through maintenance rehearsal. This facet of memory is involved in tasks such as recall of a phone number. Information only stays here for 30 seconds, it is either encoded to long term memory or forgotten.

Step 3: Long Term Memory– This final stage of retention of information. Long Term Memory effectively stores all of our knowledge and skills on a more or less permanent basis. Tulving (1972) proposed multi-facets of long term memory including; Procedural Memory (Knowing how to do things), Semantic Memory (Storing information about the world), Episodic Memory (Storing information about events we have experienced in our lives) and more.

To learn more about different branches of memory, click here.

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load Theory was developed in the 1980s by John Sweller. Sweller argued that creating a formatted sequence of how information is presented helps decrease cognitive load.  This scientific approach to learning states that in order to properly understand any information, the information should be presented at an accurate speed and level of difficulty that is aligned with the way that the human brain processes information. Fundamentally, the intention of the Cognitive Load Theory is not to overwhelm the learner with too much information.

Application of the Cognitive Load Theory can increase a human’s ability to learn new things. Learning requires maximum use of our short term memory, however, our short term memory has a limited capacity. It can become quickly overloaded when an abundance of information is presented, ultimately decreasing our brain’s ability to move information to Long Term Memory.

Cognitive Load Theory: Understanding Cognitive Load and Cognitive Limit

The working memory has a limited capacity. Cognitive load is essentially the total amount of information that the working memory can process. The cognitive limit is the maximum amount of information a person can process through working memory at a given time. On average, the working memory can process two to three processes at a given time. Overloading your brain with information has negative effects on the working memory’s ability to complete tasks and successfully store the information.

Cognitive Load Theory characterizes Cognitive Load into three distinct types: intrinsic, extraneous and germane. This can be applied to numerous aspects of daily life to help us better retain the information we are learning.

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Cognitive Load Theory: What is Extraneous Cognitive Load?

Extraneous Cognitive Load relates to the way tasks are presented to the learner. When there are outside pieces of information that are presented while learning, it makes it more difficult for the learner to absorb the main point of the information. For example, adding several pieces of irrelevant information to a powerpoint presentation decreases the listeners ability to understand the main point of your presentation.

Any external sensory distractions are considered in the cognitive load theory as an extraneous cognitive load. Imagine you are studying for your last midterm of the semester, unfortunately it is hard to focus due to the loud noises from a construction site that is located right outside your dorm. This can have major repercussions, it can decrease your ability to properly retain information from your notes  and ultimately jeopardize your ability to perform well on the exam. Reduce external elements as much as possible. This will allow your or your learner to focus on what is important. This helps increase the transfer to long term memory.

Cognitive Load Theory: What is Intrinsic Cognitive Load?

Cognitive Load Theory: Understanding This Process

This type of cognitive load focuses on the complexity of the topic. Intrinsic Cognitive Load is the measured effort associated with a specific topic. This ideal ultimately states that when the subject itself is very complicated, the students has to break it down piece by piece in order to properly understand it. If the topic is too complex you have to break it down in comprehensible sequences. Having an instructor who breaks down this information into smaller, graspable pieces of information helps the learner understand new material.

Some young children are initally confused when they first learn basic subtraction, such as 20 – 13. Using physical “number counters” or any object that can make this problem seem more tangible can help increase comprehension. However, techniques like this can sometimes create cognitive load that would at first potentially confuse them, if not properly explained. Make sure when you are using outside examples to explain something to a new learner, make sure the examples are not too far off from the main idea you are trying to teach them. Having simple, relatable examples can improve understanding (and decrease cognitive load).

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Cognitive Load Theory: What is Germane Cognitive Load?

Germane Cognitive Load is actually a beneficial type of cognitive load and focuses on the work your brain puts in for moving knowledge permanently into Long Term Memory. Germane Cognitive is a way of describing the free cognitive resources our brain can utilize to increase the likelihood that this information with move to Long Term Memory. The more cognitive resources a brain utilizes to understand information, the more likely the concept will be structured as knowledge.

Sweller et al. created this branch of cognitive load when they came to the conclusion that particular type of formats of instruction that can increase cognition. They claim that learning can occur without Germane load but the presence of Germane Cognitive Load can increase the quality of learning.

Cognitive Load Theory: Split Attention Effect

Split Attention Effect is a negative learning consequence that is the result from poorly designed instructional materials. It states that when designing teaching materials of any sort, it is important to avoid formats that require the learner to split their attention and mental processing between multiple sources of information. If the learner has to bounce constantly between a photo and questions associated with the photo, it decreases the likelihood they will properly understand the material.

For instance, say you are reading a section out of a textbook, but due to the book’s formatting, you have to flip back and forth between pages so you can read and correspond the information you are reading about with the given picture. This task is also equally as annoying for your brain. Since you are bouncing back and forth between two pieces of information, overall it is not as easy to retain what you are reading about, in comparison to if the formatting was a little better and everything was on the same page.

Application of Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory
Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory in the Classroom

Cognitive Load Theory suggests that many conventional instructional formats are ineffective as they involve extraneous cognitive activities, which interfere with learning. Educators should be mindful not to overload the learners with information because it can reduce the amount of knowledge a student can process at a given time. Overwhelming a learner with too much information can have negative effects on learning capacity, ability and esteem.

Cognitive Load Theory endorses an explicit model of teaching. When teachers use explicit instruction, they present material in a pragmatic structure that aims to direct scaffold learning. As a teacher, begin with the simplest form of material that is related to the subject, then work your way up, in terms of complexity. Doing so helps break down extraneous and intrinsic cognitive load.

Cognitive Load Theory While Writing

Adding filler words/sentences to any work of writing in order to increase the word count can seem like a good idea at the time, but if they do not relate to the point you are trying to get across, it can confuse your reader. I am guilty of this myself, I add big vocabulary filler words wherever possible to make my writing seem more complex. However, when I have someone proofread my papers, they get confused with all of the extra words that don’t relate to the main point, ultimately forcing me to take them out. It saves time and effort (and reduces cognitive load) if you articulate yourself in a clear cut manner and structure your sentences in a format that clearly states what you need to say.

Writing an outline for any body of work is a good habit for reducing cognitive load. Write your main idea at the top of the page and organize the paragraphs in a clear way that can explain your ideas to the reader. Just sitting down and diving into your writing without no game plan can increase your chances of getting off track from the main idea you need to convey.

Don’t write your final paper of the semester during a party in your dorm room. This will ultimately not benefit you. The Extraneous Cognitive Load from the party setting (Friends talking, loud music, beaming lights, etc.) would be too distracting for you to produce any good work of writing. The best information retention is done in a quiet location when you are in a diligent mindset. There are sometimes when you are in a comfortable, quiet setting yet you can’t stop thinking about other unrelated things. If you don’t have a fastly approaching deadline, put the assignment away and save it for a time when you are in a better mindset. There is nothing wrong with walking away from an assignment if you aren’t in the right state of mind. Rushing when writing a paper or study for an exam, whatever it may be, decreases your brain’s ability to retain the information.

Cognitive Load Theory: How to Decrease Cognitive Load

Cognitive Load Theory
Cognitive Load Theory

As a learner:

  • Keep focused on the main idea.
  • Use outlines to organize information.
  • Don’t leave assignments or anything you have to teach yourself to the last minute. Spacing out information over a broad period of time and focusing on it for designated periods of time everyday. This can improve your ability to retain the material without overloading yourself.
  • Avoid the use of unnecessary technology when doing important assignments. Only use technology that can be helpful for the understanding of new information. As tempting as checking social media may be, is scrolling through your Instagram feed going to help you understand the Pythagorean Theorem?

Tips on how to reduce Extraneous Cognitive Load:

  • Wear headphones, ear plugs or anything that can cancel out external noise when you are trying to focus.
  • Reduce amount of sensory information while working, work in a quiet and controlled location, with little distractions around you.
  • Only have necessary items that will help you complete the task, don’t bring anything that can possibly distract you.

As an instructor:

  • Keep your learners focused on the main idea of the lesson as much as possible.
  • Teach students effective learning strategies so they can break down information independently.
  • Provide a variety of activities and breaks between learning activities. This helps decrease cognitive load and improve the quality of recall.
  • Keep your powerpoints and worksheets simple, only add photos if they relate to the main idea.
  • Be rigorous with the banning of outside technology. One student texting on their phones not only distracts them but the people around them. Unfortunately, phone usage in a learning environment is comparable to a domino effect. Stop one student and be firm with this implication so phones don’t take command of your classroom.
  • Have all the seats face the board. Positioning their bodies to the front of the class where you are teaching can decrease extraneous cognitive load and other distractions.
  • Social interaction is vital for child development, so banning all talking in the classroom would not be the best for your students. Decrease the amount of talking during important assignments and imply mandatory silence, so students will be able to concentrate better. Designate times of the day where conversation is allowed, and in contrast, where silence in obligatory.