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How does Cognitive Load Theory integrate with other theories?

How does Cognitive Load Theory integrate with other theories?

5 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Does Cognitive Load Theory offer all the answers to teaching & learning, or does it provide a narrow view of learning? How do other teaching & learning theories link and relate to it? The good news is that recent research has explored this and has given us a great holistic perspective.

In this blog, we will look into a recent research paper that explored how Cognitive Load Theory blends with four other theories to optimise students’ learning process:

  • The Expertise Reversal Effect
  • Embodied Cognition
  • Emotional induction
  • Replenishment of working memory

A quick refresher on Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory focuses on 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 can hinder learning, as the brain becomes unable to effectively process all the incoming information.

If you want to gain a deeper understanding of Cognitive Load Theory, we wrote a blog on the 10 principles behind it.

1. Cognitive Load Theory and the Expertise Reversal Effect

    The Expertise Reversal Effect is a term that describes how teaching methods that work well for beginners might not be as useful (and could even hold back) for more advanced learners. Simply put, what helps a beginner might not help an expert, and vice versa.

    When we think about this in terms of Cognitive Load Theory, which focuses on how much mental effort is used in learning, it becomes really important. For beginners, clear instructions and guidance are key to avoid overloading their brains, as they’re still building their basic knowledge. However, for more advanced learners who already have a solid understanding stored in their long-term memory, too much guidance can actually conflict with their own internal model. This highlights the need to adjust teaching methods based on the learner’s level of expertise to manage cognitive load and improve learning results.


    A recent study highlighted this concept by looking at the impact of learners’ expertise on integrated learning. This is when students learn a subject through a foreign language, effectively learning both at the same time. The study found that while this method was very beneficial for beginners, it made learning harder for experts by overloading their brains.

    These findings emphasise the importance of considering learners’ expertise when planning instruction. You’ll need to adapt your teaching to fit your students’ individual needs, which can help you make the most of Cognitive Load Theory in different learning environments.

    2. Cognitive Load Theory and Embodied Cognition

    Embodied Cognition is a theory that emphasises how our physical interactions with the world affect our thinking processes. It connects with Cognitive Load Theory by suggesting that our bodily experiences can influence our cognitive load. Our physical experiences can either make learning and information retention more efficient or more challenging. It’s a combination of the tangible and intangible aspects of cognition.

    Recently, one study looked into how students’ cognitive load impacted their learning when they use physical actions like pointing with their fingers. They found that such a simple action can help learning. When students point at something they can see and locate in a physical space, it reduces the need to keep track of that information in their heads. This helps lighten their cognitive load, making learning a bit easier.

    So, what does this mean for your classroom? Well, by considering both cognitive load and physical interaction, we can start to build more effective and engaging learning environments. Whether it’s pointing or gesturing, integrating movement into teaching may help manage your students’ cognitive load and optimise their learning.

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

    3. Cognitive Load Theory and Emotional Induction

    In the education field, feelings and learning are closely linked, and their interaction can greatly impact a student’s educational journey. Cognitive Load Theory provides a useful way to understand this connection.

    A key idea from this theory is the concept of unnecessary mental effort that distracts from learning, also known as extraneous cognitive load. Feelings can play a role in this. For example, if a student becomes anxious while trying to grasp a challenging subject, their mental focus gets divided, making it tougher for them to learn.

    However, it’s not all negative. Recent research shows that certain emotions, like enjoyment, can actually motivate students, making the learning process more enjoyable. A study on university students learning Japanese letters found that those who were more advanced reported feeling more enjoyment and less frustration when faced with complex tasks.

    This tells us that encouraging positive feelings like enjoyment, which increase mental resources, can be an effective learning strategy. At the same time, reducing negative feelings like frustration, which use up these resources, can also help improve learning.

    4. Cognitive Load Theory and Replenishment of Working Memory

    In 2018, researchers suggested a new idea related to Cognitive Load Theory, which looks at how much mental effort is used in the learning process. They suggested that taking breaks might actually help students learn better than studying non-stop. This challenges the traditional view that working memory has set limits.

    Put simply, your students’ working memory is more limited right after it’s been used a lot. Just like a tired runner, it needs a break to recharge and improve its ability to learn.

    This idea of “recharging working memory” was studied further earlier this year. The study found that students who decided when to take their own breaks tended to take fewer but longer breaks compared to shorter, more frequent breaks set by a computer system. Interestingly, students said they found tasks easier with the computer-set breaks, suggesting that regular, short breaks might lead to less tiredness and distraction.

    Understanding and using the idea of recharging working memory could greatly improve learning experiences. It strengthens the connection between Cognitive Load Theory, self-guided learning and the concept of recharging working memory. Encouraging students to take shorter regular breaks could make a big difference.

    Final thoughts

    Merging Cognitive Load Theory with other teaching theories offers a range of possibilities. It can help us better understand how students learn. And as a result, create engaging and effective learning environments. And the good news is, every day research takes us one step nearer to knowing even more.

    To take your school’s understanding and application of Cognitive Load Theory to the next level, book your CPD workshop today.


    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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