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4 problems with Cognitive Load Theory

4 problems with Cognitive Load Theory

4 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Let’s start with the disclaimer first: we have spent all summer at InnerDrive HQ researching and writing our new Cognitive Load Theory CPD for teacher inset training. We are big fans of the theory and think that, if it is understood and used correctly, it has the power to transform both teaching and student learning.

Now that we’ve got that out the way, we can say that it is not a perfect theory (no theory is) and there are still a few quirks to iron out. Specifically, there are four problems with Cognitive Load Theory that researchers/teachers still need to figure out.

Cognitive Load Theory: A 30-second recap

Cognitive Load Theory essentially highlights how new information is initially held in working memory, which unfortunately is pretty small. For actual learning to take place, this information has to be transferred to the long-term memory store, which is really large.

Unfortunately, there is a bottleneck between the two, meaning that information that doesn’t get transferred across is ultimately lost and forgotten. Acknowledging this bottleneck and improving the transfer from working- to long-term memory is what Cognitive Load Theory is all about.

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

What’s wrong with Cognitive Load Theory then?

As we said at the start of this, we strongly recommend all teachers learn about Cognitive Load Theory and implement it in their practice. But what pitfalls do teachers need to know about and what limitations does the theory have?

1. How do we even measure cognitive load?

The central premise to Cognitive Load Theory is that we do not want to overload students’ working memory. This is because too much load equals poor transfer which means not much gets into long-term memory. However, evidence suggests it is really difficult (all but impossible) to practically gauge how much cognitive load each student can take. If we can’t realistically measure it, then any talk about optimising cognitive load leads to guesswork. And where there is guesswork, there are biases and error.

2. Less load does not equal better

We have sometimes seen Cognitive Load Theory misinterpreted in the past. It is all about optimising cognitive load – which does not always mean reducing it.

The best way to think about it is through the ‘Goldilocks Effect’ – the amount has to be just right. Too much cognitive load means that information will get lost, while too little cognitive load means that students just won’t learn enough.

When any cognitive psychology theory becomes mainstream, it often gets dumbed down and overly simplified. For this to not happen with Cognitive Load Theory, it is important to remember that less is not always better.

3. It is really hard to use with 30 students in your class

Building on the two previous points, if it is hard to measure cognitive load and it is important to optimise load, dealing with a class of thirty students becomes really tricky. Each will have a different optimal load based on their previous knowledge. If the theory is misinterpreted, this can lead to teachers wasting hours (that they don’t usually have in the first place) trying to differentiate a task based on each individual student’s ideal load. The impact that this would have is unlikely to justify the exhausting additional workload.

4. It needs to be used alongside effective teaching strategies

Knowing about Cognitive Load Theory is not enough to crack teaching. No one cognitive psychology theory captures everything about learning. It is one thing to know about the importance of transferring information from working memory to long-term memory, but this impact will only reach so far. That is, unless it is accompanied by knowing which teaching strategies will facilitate using Cognitive Load Theory in your classroom. Essentially, it does not matter how free the motorway is if there is no petrol in the car to start with.

Specifically, strategies such as Retrieval Practicespacinginterleaving and dual coding are good places to start. Without these strategies, any discussion on how to help students learn information is incomplete.

Final thoughts

As the profession as a whole becomes more research engaged (which is no doubt a great thing), the next step will be to hone the art of applying this science. Cognitive Load Theory offers practical strategies and sound advice on how to help students learn more efficiently and effectively – when used correctly. It is not a stretch to say that everyone involved in working with and teaching students would improve their practice by learning more about it. But as with all things, the key is to apply it wisely, thoughtfully and critically.

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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