Cognitive Load Theory: Brief Definition

Cognitive load theorists recognize three types of cognitive load: Intrinsic cognitive load is associated with the learner thinking about the information and the task. Intrinsic load does increase as the task becomes more complex, but steps to break the task down into parts and the use graphic organizers (for example) to help store and organize information are strategies for reducing this load. Germane cognitive load is that used to construct new knowledge. Building new connections, creating metaphors, summarizing, and generalizing are all products that arise from germane cognitive load. 

Extraneous cognitive load is that associated with poor design or with other noise in the setting. Educators take steps to minimize extraneous cognitive load in its many forms. In a simple example, more than one person speaking at a time can increase the extraneous cognitive load of a classroom, as one must use some of their zero-sum cognition to focus attention on one speaker. Those who find it difficult to learn in noisy settings are experiencing the effect of reduced germane cognitive load because of excessive extraneous cognitive load. The noise can affect all senses. When using technology, unfamiliar or complex interfaces along with controls that are difficult to find all increase extraneous load.

Figure 6.1 illustrates the changes in the distribution of load in two situations. In the two cases, we assume the task requires the same information to be held in memory, so the intrinsic load is the same. In the top case, the extraneous load is relatively small and there is a greater portion of the cognitive load available for germane load for new learning. In the bottom case, the task is being performed in a setting with greater extraneous cognitive load, thus less germane cognitive load is available for new learning. When using technology for the first time or when using poorly designed technology, extraneous cognitive load associated with operating the technology and navigating the interface increases extraneous cognitive load, so it resembles the bottom case in figure 6.1.

Figure 6.1. Two situations illustrating cognitive load