The Lens of Cognitive Load

Educators avoid theory whenever they can, and that is an unfortunate stance as a good theory is very useful when we want to understand what we do and why we do it. Cognitive load theory is an excellent example of a theory that is useful, but little-known and little-used by practitioners.

CLT posits humans have a limited amount of perception, attention, memory, and capacity to process information (which comprise cognition) that can be used for any task. The cognition we have available for any task is used for three purposes:

• Intrinsic cognitive load is used to understand the task; it depends on the nature of the task.
• Extrinsic cognitive load is used to overcome poor design of the task or the tools used to accomplish it.
• Germane cognitive load is that which is available to build new understanding.

Given these definitions, it is reasonable to conclude we seek to maximize germane cognitive load and to minimize extrinsic cognitive load. Ostensibly, it seems those are the only types of cognitive load one can vary. When designing learning environments, we seek to make them easy to navigate and we seek to make our tools easy to use, so more cognition is available for germane purposes. I suggest, however, that recent trends in education are increasing the intrinsic cognitive load of teaching and learning.

Consider a lesson from science in which students are analyzing data they collected in the laboratory. We want students to use germane cognitive load to understand the methods they are using as well as the phenomenon being investigated. When we add elements to the learning task, such as:

• Specifying the standard or proficiency on which they are working, and asking them to be mindful of that as they work
• Adding metacognitive tasks, so students are thinking about their thinking

can add to the intrinsic cognitive load. “Understanding the data we collected” becomes

• “understanding the data we collected and knowing which proficiency we are meeting,” or
• “understanding the data we collected and knowing which proficiency we are meeting, and knowing how I learn about the data.”

While I understand the importance of metacognition and clear objectives, these should play a different role in the classroom than we have been allowing. Clear objectives (and knowing the proficiencies or standards our lessons address) is more important for teachers to understand than for students to understand. The structures teachers use to organize curriculum are certainly of secondary importance to the curriculum itself, so I argue making that explicit to students consumes cognitive load that is better used for other purposes. Likewise, metacognition is most effective when students step back from a learning activity and reflect on it (or better yet a collection of learning activities); to be metacognitive can reduce the cognitive load available to both understand the lesson and understand one’s learning.

Cognitive load theory provides teachers (and curriculum leaders, and anyone else who affects what is taught and how it is taught) a lens with which to understand what happens in classrooms. We have been concerned about minimizing extrinsic cognitive load when making design decisions, but it seems we also need to be aware of how we are expanding our definitions of learning, this interfering with germane cognitive load as well.

Learn more about cognitive load theory: