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Cognitive load theory – a brief primer on how it can improve your practice

Students can learn more effectively when teachers respect the bandwidth their brains are capable of, says Adam Riches...

  • Cognitive load theory – a brief primer on how it can improve your practice

John Sweller’s 1988 and 1998 papers on the concept of cognitive load theory have been the biggest influencing factors on the way I teach today.

That’s a bold claim, but I maintain they’re the most important papers I’ve ever read regarding pedagogy.

CLT is based around the idea that our working memory can only deal with a limited amount of information at any one time. The theory focuses on the significance of how our brains deal with stimulus or inputs, illuminating the way in which new information must be fed to learners in a way that enables them to process it, without being overburdened.

Sweller identified three types of cognitive load – intrinsic (the inherent difficulty of the material itself), extraneous (ways of presenting the material that don’t aid learning) and germane (elements that that actually aid information processing and contribute to the development of ‘schemas’).

Sweller’s papers highlight what happens when our working memory is overloaded and the impact this can have on the completion of tasks, as well as the transfer of information from our short term, finite working memory to our theoretically infinite long term memory.

CLT allows us to understand how our brains work in layman’s terms.

Sweller’s papers do a great job of explaining learning from a psychological point of view, in a way that non-specialist classroom practitioners can easily grasp.

Practitioners versed in CLT will make active decisions when planning to ensure that learners aren’t overloaded with unnecessary inputs and stimulus that may overburden them.


3 CLT points to consider and potentially apply in your own lessons

  1. Break down subject content when introducing new topics and make time to recap and recall information
  2. Present instructions clearly without introducing too much information at the same time
  3. Be wary of reducing cognitive load too much – you don’t want the desirable difficulty to be too low

Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning; follow him at @teachmrriches.

This piece originally appeared in ‘Learning Lab’ section of Teach Secondary magazine.

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