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Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Methods. Created by Matthew Chong, Rachel Gastrich, Brian Levels, Aurora Velasco, Jennifer Young. Cognitive Load Theory. GA Miller!.

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cognitive load theory and instructional methods

Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Methods

Created by

Matthew Chong, Rachel Gastrich, Brian Levels, Aurora Velasco, Jennifer Young


Cognitive Load Theory

GA Miller!

In recent years there has been an increased focus on the role of education and training, and on the effectiveness and efficiency of various instructional design strategies. Some of the most important breakthroughs in this regard have come from the discipline of Cognitive Science, which deals with the mental processes of learning, memory and problem solving.

Cognitive load theory (e.g. Sweller, 1988; 1994) is an instructional theory generated by this field of research. It describes learning structures in terms of an information processing system involving long term memory, which effectively stores all of our knowledge and skills on a more-or-less permanent basis and working memory, which performs the intellectual tasks associated with consciousness. Information may only be stored in long term memory after first being attended to, and processed by, working memory. Working memory, however, is extremely limited in both capacity and duration. These limitations will, under some conditions, impede learning.

The fundamental tenet of cognitive load theory is that the quality of instructional design will be raised if greater consideration is given to the role and limitations, of working memory. Since its conception in the early 1980's, cognitive load theory has been used to develop several instructional strategies which have been demonstrated empirically to be superior to those used conventionally.

This paper outlines some of the basic principles of cognitive load theory. Examples of the instructional design strategies generated by cognitive load theory are also provided.

Did you know the Earth experiences 50,000 earthquakes a year?

Memorize the following set of letters and spaces:

Hea cto egttch edh sda

and the following numbers:


John Sweller!

Cool Fact. There were approximately 269 million mobile phones in use in China in 2003, more than any other country.

Working memory




cognitive load theory overview
Cognitive Load Theory Overview
  • What is cognitive load theory?
    • Long term memory
    • Working memory
    • Information is processed by working memory before it can be stored in long term memory
    • Working memory is very limited – overloading it will impede learning
history of cognitive load theory
History of Cognitive Load Theory
  • G.A. Miller
    • 7 +/- 2 digits of information in working memory
  • John Sweller
    • Problem solving and means-end analysis (MEA)
    • MEA = Excessive cognitive processing = less learning = Cognitive Load Theory
how does it relate to instructional design
How does it relate to instructional design?
  • Three types of cognitive load:
    • Intrinsic cognitive load – the inherent difficulty in new instruction
    • Extraneous cognitive load – generated in how information is presented to learners
    • Germane cognitive load – information related to schema being taught
  • Good instructional design should increase germane cognitive load and decrease extraneous cognitive load
how does it relate to instructional design1
How does it relate to instructional design?
  • Instructional methods based on cognitive load theory
    • Chunking
    • Split Attention
    • Worked examples
    • Backwards fading
    • Expertise reversal

What is it?

  • A technique in which information in long term memory is chunked from multiple elements of information into a single element
  • Can be easily processed in working memory

Why is it used?

  • We use chunking to reduce the information to be memorized into seven plus or minus two categories

Why does it work?

  • You can retain more information in the “limited space of your short-term memory” as well
  • Learn that information more efficiently
example of chunking
Example of Chunking

Horse Orange Chair Student Kiwi

Table Yellow Dog Bed Homework

Teacher Bookcase Fish Blue Banana

Black Class Apple Bird Desk

Mango Grape Green Cat School

example of chunking1
Example of Chunking

Horse Cat Dog Fish Bird

Orange Yellow Blue Green Black

Table Chair Desk Bookcase Bed

Teacher School Student Homework Class

Apple Banana Kiwi Grape Mango

split attention effect
Split Attention Effect

What is it?

  • Split attention occurs whenever a learner needs to attend to more than one source of information, or more than one activity (ex. diagrams, note-taking)

How to prevent it

  • Integrate diagrammatical information (visuals with integrated text)
  • Provide cues for note taking in lectures (“It should be noted that…”)

Why does it work?

  • Minimizing split attention reduces cognitive load and facilitates learning.
example of split attention
Example of Split Attention

Bad – Not Integrated

Good – Integrated

Diagrams from an Electrical Test Lesson - S. Tindall-Ford, P. Chandler and J. Sweller, Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied3 (1997),

example of split attention1
Example of Split Attention
worked examples
Worked Examples

What is it?

  • A worked example is a step by step demonstration

Why is it used?

  • Worked examples are natural ways to show specifically how to accomplish a task
  • Worked examples help to lower extraneous cognitive load and intrinsic cognitive load, which can improve learning

Why does it work?

  • Provides a schema for the learner to develop a mental model
  • Learner builds own mental model
example of worked examples
Example of Worked Examples

Uncle Bill – R.I.P.

How To Tie A Tie

backwards fading
Backwards Fading

What is it?

  • Worked examples that transition gradually into practice problems by leaving out an increasing number of steps at the end as learners gain proficiency

How is it used?

  • Learners should devote as much working memory capacity as possible to build a schema that will enhance new skills
  • As they gain expertise, learners gain understanding as they build competency
  • Worked examples evolve into full problem examples that must be completed by learner

Who is it best for?

  • Novice learners who have built some mental schema
expertise reversal effect
Expertise Reversal Effect

What is it?

  • Negative effect of instructional methods that aid novices on the learning of experts

What causes it?

  • Based off of the redundancy principle of cognitive load
  • Existing large schema of experts
  • Conflict between the instruction and the existing schema of experts
expertise reversal and worked examples
Expertise Reversal and Worked Examples


Worked Example: If y = x + 6, x = z + 3, and z = 6, find the value of y .


x=(6)+3, x=9


y=(9)+6, y=15

Backwards Fading: If y=x+4, x=z+2, and z=4, find the value of y


x=(4)+2, x=6


What is the value of y?

Backwards Fading (cont.): If y=x+4, x=z+2, and z=4, find the value of y


x=(4)+2, x=6


What is the value of y?

Problem1: If y=x+6, x=z+3, and z=6, find the value of y .

Problem2: If y=x+4, x=z+2, and z=4, find the value of y

expertise reversal and split attention
Expertise Reversal and Split Attention



Diagrams from an Electrical Test Lesson - S. Tindall-Ford, P. Chandler and J. Sweller, Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied3 (1997),

how to avoid expertise reversal
How to avoid expertise reversal

Expertise is high

Expertise is mixed

Avoid redundancy

More practice problems, less worked examples

Discovery lessons


Use adaptive e-learning

Split training

Expertise Reversal

learning activity
Learning Activity
  • Group 1 – Chunking
  • Group 2 – Split Attention
  • Group 3 – Worked Examples
  • Group 4 – Backwards Fading
  • Group 5 – Expertise Reversal