Cognitive Load Theory

By: Kristine Burgess, M.S.Ed. (Reading Department Head at Landmark High School)

The Landmark School Outreach Program's mission is to empower students with language-based learning disabilities by offering their teachers an exemplary program of applied research and professional development.

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What Is Cognitive Load Theory?

John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) supports the idea that students can learn only if their mental capacity is not overloaded. In consideration of this theory, it is important to be aware of the amount of information a student is asked to learn. When an overload occurs, students often display an increase in errors, poor effort, and a lack of engagement. If an overload occurs, struggling students tend to shut down.

According to the theory, there are two main elements of cognitive load:

  • Extraneous cognitive load refers to the teacher’s instructional methods and requires teachers to eliminate the unnecessary. In other words, it encompasses the questions, "what are you asking the student to learn?" or “how are you asking the student to learn?” Teachers should consider how their classroom routines and practices might connect to a student’s ability to recall important information and perform required tasks.
  • Intrinsic cognitive load depends on the inherent complexity of the material that is being learned. In reality, teachers may have little control over this factor. However, they can alleviate that complexity of information by enhancing the element of interactivity, breaking down information into manageable chunks, or explaining the relation of material to previously learned information.

Regardless of which of these two main elements might be most affecting a student’s ability to learn, a high cognitive load will make learning difficult for that student. However, understanding the difference and adapting instruction when necessary is an incredibly important step for teachers to take.

How Does This Connect To Landmark's Teaching Principles™?

Based on the concept that when students can interact and engage with the material, the transfer from acquisition to automation is more natural, it stands to reason that presenting material in multiple formats will guide students to the development of schema. Therefore, CLT is addressed best by applying Landmark's second teaching principle: use multiple modalities. In addition, a key Landmark teaching principle is to micro-unit and structure tasks. By breaking down complex work to present information and directions step-by-step, teachers can reduce any stresses placed on students who are struggling to manage their cognitive load. For the full text of the Landmark Teaching Principles™, click here.

Free Landmark Teaching Strategies

For more information on how to best assist struggling students to manage information processing, please see these strategies: Cognitive Load Theory Classroom Strategies



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Sweller, John. (1994). Cognitive Load Theory, Learning Difficulty, and Instructional Design. Learning and Instruction, 4, 295-312

Kristine Burgess, M.S.Ed. (Reading Department Head at Landmark High School) (2016)