Teaching Stories

Lightening the load to optimise learning

Information overload is a challenge for everyone in the hyper-connected world in which we live and can impact many aspects of our lives, from our general wellbeing to our daily ability to function effectively.

This experience is also true of students, who are challenged to navigate not only new surroundings, and the intricacies of university life, but also the significant task of engaging with new, novel, and complex ideas and concepts in their studies.

Ask yourself the question, have you ever witnessed students in your sessions unable to process, retain and apply learning? Or fail to engage with learning activities at all – if so, this may be due to ‘cognitive overload’.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive load theory (Sweller, 2010) is an instructional theory, built upon knowledge of how humans learn. It provides not only a window on what is happening in the minds of students when they experience cognitive overload, but critically what steps we can take to manage cognitive load, optimise teaching practice, and maximise learning.

While there are a many facets of Cognitive load theory (CLT), and subsequent recommendations for academic practice, a good entry point is to understand the role played in the learning process by, working memory – the part of the brain where all conscious thinking and processing occurs, which is limited in its capacity, and long term memory – where knowledge, skills and experiences are stored, with unlimited capacity.

When students experience periods of overload, particularly when encountering new/novel learning, CLT suggests this is a result of the working memory being overloaded, due to the bottleneck that its limited capacity creates (ever experienced a slow running laptop – the RAM is experiencing its own digital overload!).

CLT goes on to state that this is due to the amount of ‘elements’ or pieces of information that the working memory is being asked to process at any one time. Cognitive overload is therefore a result of excessive simultaneous ‘element interactivity.’

Long term memory (LTM) on the other hand, can provide the key to accessing higher levels of learning and more complex thinking. As learning is stored in the LTM a large quantity of elements are effectively ‘chunked’ into mental representations (schema), and then when recalled into the working memory for future use create a significantly reduced cognitive load, freeing up space for further cognitive functioning and learning.

Manage the load

So, what actions can be taken to manage learner cognitive load? I will address this question using Swellers (2011) distinction between intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load and provide some recommendations to maximise student learning.

Intrinsic cognitive load

Intrinsic cognitive load is the demand associated with the nature of the learning that students are to engage with, it is the inherent complexity, and it is inescapable – therefore intrinsic cognitive load needs to be optimised. Some examples of how to do this include:

Pre-teaching – this involves uilitising tools and approaches that provide key information in advance of sessions to reduce the individual elements that are needed to be processed at one time. Examples can include providing a glossary of key terminology, process/event timelines or flipped approaches using video explanations of key theories. Learners new to the topic can learn this foundational information in advance of sessions at their own pace, and experienced learners can use it for retrieval practice, prior to applying the learning in active sessions targeting higher level thinking.

Isolated elements (or part-whole) – this refers to breaking down complex tasks into isolated segments that are initially learnt separately, and then brought back together as a whole concept. For instance, technical skills may be broken down into separate stages, learned individually and then gradually brought together as a whole skill. This could be applied to complex systems, processes or skills related to any discipline.

Extraneous cognitive load

Extraneous cognitive load is created due to the structure of the task/approach used, and the way it is presented. There is no situation where extraneous cognitive load is beneficial and as such should be reduced or eliminated. Some examples of how this can be achieved are:

Worked examples – one of the foundational recommendations of CLT is the need to adopt appropriate scaffolding for tasks. For example, when introducing a new topic, a worked example of a similar problem to that which learners are expected to engage with, would help to reduce the elements that need to be processed simultaneously by providing a framework that can be applied, thus reducing extraneous cognitive load. Similarly, if we are working with learners who have experience of the topic or problem, scaffolding can be reduced, for instance with an incomplete worked example (or no worked example at all), as they would have prior knowledge they can draw upon.

Redundancy – this involves removing any unrequired and distracting information from communications. An example would be to remove a written explanation of a diagram that is understandable on its own, or the common example could be to refrain from reading text verbatim from presentation slides. Reviewing all materials used and identifying where duplication occurs and applying the less is more principle, can lighten the extraneous cognitive load.

These are a few examples of approaches that can be adopted and have been discovered through the application of cognitive load theory. Fundamentally it is about being intentional in our practice and mindful of the needs of students when planning and delivering teaching.

Author – Spencer Frost, Lecturer in Academic Development


Lovell, O. (2020). Cognitive Load Theory In Action. Woodbridge: John Catt Education Ltd.

Sweller, J. (2010). Cognitive Load Theory: Recent Theoretical Advances. In J. L. Plass, R. Moreno, & R. Brunken (eds.) Cognitive load theory. Cambridge University Press. pp. 29-47.

Sweller, J. (2011). Cognitive Load Theory. Psychology of Learning and Motivation. 55 (Ch2). pp. 37-76.

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