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Cognitive Load Theory - A guide to the basics

Cognitive Load Theory: A guide to the basics

4 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • Cognitive Load Theory

With Cognitive Load Theory increasing in popularity by the day, many teachers are eager to learn more about it. If you yourself are one of these teachers, here’s an easy guide to the basics and our favourite resources for further reading.

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load Theory emphasises the limited capacity of working memory, as opposed to the near-unlimited capacity of long-term memory. It states that processing too much information at once can lead to a cognitive overload in working memory. This overload can slow down and hinder the learning process as it has a negative impact on the transfer of information from working memory to long-term memory.

The theory isn’t just about helping students to remember more – occupying our cognitive resources with irrelevant or excessive information can lead to inefficient learning. Avoiding cognitive overload means undertaking a more focused and concise approach to learning.


Cognitive Load Theory key terms

The two types of memory

Working memory

Immediately after we are exposed to new information, it is held and processed in our working memory. Our working memory handles a range of tasks from verbal-reasoning and reading, to problem-solving and comprehension. Its small capacity means that information can easily be forgotten if it isn’t transferred to our long-term memory. To give you an idea of the size of your working memory, research has suggested that you can only recall 7 +/- 2 items at one time.

Long-term memory

Making connections between the information in your working memory to your long-term memory is what allows you to learn new things. It has a huge capacity and allows us to remember things for years and years and stores all manners of memories, from a task you completed a few hours ago to an event from a decade ago.

Effects of Cognitive Load Theory

The Redundancy Effect

When a students’ working memory becomes clogged up by unnecessary information, they may remember the irrelevant information and forget what they actually need to know. The Redundancy Effect often hinders learning due to inefficient use of working memory resources. For educators, this means reducing the unnecessary cognitive load of redundant information for students and focusing primarily on what matters most.

The Split Attention Effect

Having to receive information alternatively from two or more sources can place a burden on working memory as focus is being spread too thinly. Switching between different sources can lead to students remembering less content because their energy and resources are spent trying to process several things at the same time. Research shows that students who learnt in a split-source format achieved lower learning outcomes than their peers who learnt in an integrated format.

Maximise your students’ learning efficiency with Cognitive Load Theory training for your school staff.

Scaffolding at different levels

Scaffolding is a teaching method that involves guiding students to learn independently by gradually removing support little by little as they progress. This is important as novices think differently to experts (due to the amount built up in the long-term memory). Here are some tips to support all your students, from those who are just starting out to those who are masters of their domain.

Novice: Worked Examples

Novice learners, or beginners, can benefit greatly from Worked Examples. This is when a problem has been solved and each step that leads to the solution has been thoroughly explained. Students can then use the same strategy for a similar question.

Intermediate: Completion Tasks

For students who are on their way to becoming experts but still need some help, Completion Tasks work really well. They are similar to the worked examples mentioned above, but are only completed partially – the students can then complete the rest of the task themselves. This allows provides them with enough structure so as to not overwhelm them, but still stretches them enough to expand their knowledge.


Once students are proficient in a particular area, it is more suitable to give them independent tasks, as they have enough knowledge in their long-term memory which in turn means they have more space in their working memory to help solve the problem. Allowing them to be independent during tasks while still being available when they ask for help will contribute positively to their expertise.

Final thoughts

We can only process so much information at once. Too much information can lead to cognitive overload, which can affect the transfer from working memory to long-term memory. Reducing this when possible is important to ensure your students are learning relevant information and remembering it for years to come. By identifying where students may be disadvantaged by the Redundancy, Split Attention or the Transient Information Effect and considering using Worked Examples and Completion Tasks should really help.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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