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Using Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom

Using Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom

5 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory has many implications for student learning and classroom teaching. Here at InnerDrive, we have looked at what Cognitive Load Theory is, ways to overcome cognitive overload, and some problems that the theory is still wrestling with.

But what about practically using Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom? In this blog, we cover different ways for you to support your students manage their cognitive load in the classroom – with the help of a handy flowchart.

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load Theory emphasises the limited capacity of working memory. It suggests that the human brain can only process so much new information at once before it gets overwhelmed and experiences cognitive overload. This is when the brain becomes unable to process any more new information and cannot transfer it from working memory into long-term memory.

Avoiding cognitive overload takes effort, but the good news is that you can help your students to avoid experiencing this. Let’s take a look at some strategies that aim to avoid cognitive overload while still optimising the capacity of students’ working memory…

How to use Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom

Managing cognitive load

In order to combat the negative effects that cognitive overload can have on learning, here are some principles and effects that you should be aware of, along with some teaching strategies to support your students.

Step 1: Is your students’ working memory overloaded?


If the answer to this question is yes, consider using a technique called “Pre-teaching”.

Pre-teaching is a strategy that involves teaching your students key vocabulary before they begin their lesson. This can help students overcome cognitive overload, as knowing some information before learning a new topic can boost confidence and reduce feelings of intimidation.

Most importantly, it can help reduce the overload of working memory as they do not need to hold all this new information at once. There is lots of research that supports the idea of pre-teaching, with findings showing its effectiveness for all kinds of students, from primary to secondary school. Pre-teaching can improve the performance of students with milder abilities but also those who perform at a general level.

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

Step 2: How are you presenting information?

Is it on a PowerPoint, written handout or a diagram? Depending on the format of the information, different cognitive load effects may hinder learning. For PowerPoint and written handouts, consider the Coherence Effect; for diagrams, the Split-Attention Effect may be more relevant.

The Coherence Effect

The Coherence Effect suggests that when presenting students with information, the teaching material should only include the essential information, and anything extra should be removed. This is because additional information such as illustrations, animations or unnecessary auditory features can overwhelm cognitive load and could hinder learning as a result.

Research suggests that extra features can affect learning even when they are intended to supplement teaching and make learning more interesting. In a series of experiments, students learned about different processes, for example how lightning forms, using narration and a corresponding animation. During the learning process, students were either exposed to background music, sounds, both or neither. Results showed that students who learned with neither performed best when tested.

To implement the Coherence Effect in your classroom, cut out excessive animations from your teaching material. This could distract students from the key points and slow down the learning process. Another way you can do this is by cutting out excessive words when presenting students with new information, for example by using bullet points.

The Split Attention Effect

The Split Attention Effect occurs when students have to use two different sources in two different locations to learn one thing. This task switching takes up a lot of cognitive effort and can lead to cognitive overload.

Research investigating the Split Attention Effect suggests that providing students with information that is all in one place is more effective than giving them many different sources. One study found that students who were given the integrated information scored higher on a retention test than those who studied using the separated resources.

In order to avoid the Split Attention Effect in your classroom, use integrated diagrams that combine both text and images in one place. This will reduce feelings of cognitive overload and will help students feel less overwhelmed by new learning material.

The Redundancy Effect

The Redundancy Effect occurs when you repeat the same information in two different formats at the same time. For example, a Redundancy Effect might happen when you give students handouts of key information, but continue to talk about it without giving students enough time to read the handout. Your students will probably not fully process what you are saying or what they are reading. This could result in cognitive overload and is not very effective for learning.

One study found that students who were given redundant information performed worse on memory retention tests than students who were not given additional text information.

Step 3: What level is the learner currently at?

The Expertise Reversal Effect

Central to this area is The Expertise Reversal Effect. The Expertise Reversal Effect is based on the idea that experts and novices learn information in different ways. When novices learn, they need to be supported, by receiving specific instructions and scaffolding, and learning information bit by bit so that they do not overwhelm their cognitive load. On the other hand, experts learn more effectively without this support, as they already have their own working internal model to draw from.

Research suggests that what may be beneficial for beginner learners may be counterproductive for advanced learners. One study showed that when novices studied Shakespearian texts accompanied by explanatory notes, they performed better in a comprehension test than those who were not given the notes. However, when the same notes were given to Shakespearian experts, the opposite effect occurred.

In order to make the most out of the Expertise Reversal Effect, you should consistently assess the stages of learning that your students are at: novices, intermediates, or experts. Depending on this evaluation:

  • Support novices by providing them with Explicit Instruction tasks and scaffolding.
  • If you students are at an intermediate stage, you can scale back scaffolding and use Worked Examples or Completion Tasks.
  • Give experts more challenging, independent tasks to rehearse learned information.

Final thoughts

It’s important to acknowledge the adverse effects that cognitive overload can have on your students’ learning capacities. Thankfully, research has now shown many ways to avoid it, and this flowchart and effective teaching strategies can help you achieve this. Download the flowchart here…

Join us on 23 March for our “Cognitive Load Theory: What it is and how to apply it to your teaching” webinar to learn even more strategies. Book your ticket here…

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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