"One might complain that it only makes learning harder to explain, to make it depend on a child's curiosity. But if we are ever really to understand how our minds grow, we must first face reality: people just don't learn so well unless they're interested or concerned. The older theories of learning and remembering never got very far because in trying to oversimplify, they lost essential aspects of the context. It wouldn't be much use to have a theory in which knowledge is somehow stored away - without a corresponding theory of how later to put that knowledge back to work" (Minsky, Society of Mind, 12.2)

cognitive load theory overview:

This theory suggests that learning happens best under conditions that are aligned with human cognitive architecture. The structure of human cognitive architecture, while not known precisely, is discernible through the results of experimental research. Recognizing George Miller's research showing that short term memory is limited in the number of elements it can contain simultaneously, Sweller builds a theory that treats schemas, or combinations of elements, as the cognitive structures that make up an individual's knowledge base. (Sweller, 1988)

The contents of long term memory are "sophisticated structures that permit us to perceive, think, and solve problems," rather than a group of rote learned facts. These structures, known as schemas, are what permit us to treat multiple elements as a single element. They are the cognitive structures that make up the knowledge base (Sweller, 1988). Schemas are acquired over a lifetime of learning, and may have other schemas contained within themselves.

The difference between an expert and a novice is that a novice hasn't acquired the schemas of an expert. Learning requires a change in the schematic structures of long term memory and is demonstrated by performance that progresses from clumsy, error-prone, slow and difficult to smooth and effortless. The change in performance occurs because as the learner becomes increasingly familiar with the material, the cognitive characteristics associated with the material are altered so that it can be handled more efficiently by working memory.

From an instructional perspective, information contained in instructional material must first be processed by working memory. For schema acquisition to occur, instruction should be designed to reduce working memory load. Cognitive load theory is concerned with techniques for reducing working memory load in order to facilitate the changes in long term memory associated with schema acquisition.


My initial impression is that cognitive load theory doesn't address motivation. Motivation influences perseverance, people will find ways to manage a larger cognitive load if they enjoy what they are learning?! eg. Game making, game playing. For example, if you are motivated you can write down your ideas, or discuss them with others, which improves memory retention.

Any learning theory which ignores motivation is suspect (Bill Oct 11)

The language of Cognitive Load Theory is the language of instruction not construction. The teacher or instructional designer is in the drivers seat. The teacher determines what load is germain to the task and what is extraineous load. The risk of this language is that it is very difficult to predict exactly what cognitive structure the learner is building and what is germain to that structure. It is helpful to consider Bloom's taxonomy of the cognitive domain. It is very easy to know what is germain load for the lower order task of recalling data but much harder to determine germain load for analysis, synthesis and evaluation. These higher order tasks require a richness and diversity of material which is poorly addressed by the distinction of germain/extraneous load. (Tony 11 Oct)


Efficiency in Learning: Addressing Cognitive Load Theory Ruth Clark, President Clark Training & Consulting