What Is Cognitive Load Theory? Cognitive Load Theory In A Nutshell

Cognitive load theory (CLT) argues that instructional design quality is increased when consideration is given to the role and limitations of working memory. The theory is based on the premise that since the brain can only do so many things at once, the individual should be selective about what they ask it to process.

Understanding cognitive load theory

Cognitive load theory was developed in the late 1980s by psychologist John Sweller, who argued that instructional design could be used to reduce cognitive load in students. 

The theory is based on two commonly accepted ideas:

  • There is a limit to how much new information the brain can process at any given time. This is called working memory, which can only store a few pieces of information for a very short duration.
  • There are no limits to how much stored information the brain can process at any given time. Stored information is accessed from long-term memory where it may be held semi-permanently.

If the working memory of a student is overloaded, there is a risk they will not understand the content being taught to them. With regular practice, however, learning can be facilitated as information is recalled from long-term memory with little conscious effort. Since this knowledge is accessed subconsciously, the working memory is freed up to learn something else.

Ultimately, the goal of cognitive load theory is to develop models of instruction that support the way the human brain learns.

The three types of cognitive load

The theory defines three types of cognitive load, which refers to the number of resources used in working memory.

Following is a look at each type:

  1. Intrinsic load – or the complexity of the material or skill, measured by the number of the elements that need to be learned. When there are a large number of interacting elements, a novice learner experiences a high intrinsic load. As a result, the intrinsic load is dependent on the complexity of the learning material and the learner’s prior level of knowledge or understanding. 
  2. Germane load – this refers to the load placed on working memory by the process of learning. In other words, the transferring of information to long-term memory where it becomes knowledge. This process is facilitated by schemas, or frameworks organizing elements of information according to how they should be used. For example, a mathematics student will use the BODMAS mnemonic to help them remember the correct order for completing calculations. Crucially, schemas reduce working memory load because they are single elements of information representing complex or multi-faceted knowledge.
  3. Extraneous load – caused by cognitive activities that do not contribute to learning. In most cases, the information presented is poorly designed and may be confusing, unnecessary, or excessive. The teacher may also instruct in a way that is similarly complex.

Five principles for reducing cognitive load

In 2002, educational psychologist Richard E. Mayer built on Sweller’s research to create five principles for reducing cognitive load:

  1. The Coherence Principle – reduce the amount of information to only what is critical and relevant to learning. Simplicity and clarity should be favored over style and applies to teaching materials and the disseminating of instructions.
  2. The Signalling Principle – important written information should be highlighted in whatever way the teacher deems appropriate. Teachers should alter their pacing and intonation when teaching verbally and should avoid speaking in a monotone voice.
  3. The Redundancy Principle – teachers should never become so lazy that they instruct by reading information from a screen.
  4. Spatial Contiguity – to reduce cognitive load, it is also important to show related topics or items close to each other. If a diagram is included in the course content, the annotations should be included on the same page.
  5. Temporal Contiguity – similar to the fourth principle, but with time instead of proximity. Related concepts or items must be mentioned in quick succession. Hours or days should not elapse before a link is made between two related concepts. Spatial and temporal learning can be facilitated by using context, which links the information to a relatable student situation and reduces germane cognitive load.

Key takeaways:

  • Cognitive load theory is a theory of instructional design based on the role and limitations of working memory on learning.
  • Cognitive load theory describes three forms of cognitive load which consumes limited resources in working memory. These include intrinsic load, germane load, and extraneous load.
  • Five principles for reducing cognitive load were later added to the theory in 2002 by Richard E. Mayer. Among other things, teachers must favor a simple and clear instructional style and avoid reading off a screen.

Connected Business Concepts


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Moonshot Thinking

Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What is marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: HeuristicsBiases.

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