Cognitive Load Theory explained

Cognitive Load Theory - Toolshero

Cognitive Load Theory: this article describes the Cognitive Load Theory, developed by John Sweller in a practical way. Next to what it is, including the definition, the term short term memory is explained. This article also highlights the importance of separate pieces, schemas, cognitive load theory tools and three types of cognitive loads. Enjoy reading!

What is the Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)? The theory explained

Australian educational psychologist John Sweller was credited for creating this influential theory of the cognitive load of the human brain. He wrote a thesis about this subject in 1972. In cognitive psychology, his theory is referred to as the ‘Cognitive Load Theory'(CLT).

This theory concerns the effort being used in short-term memory. This short-term memory is also referred to as working memory. The more intensively the cognitive part of the brain where knowledge is located is strained, the more difficult it is to retain and process information.

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We can see an individual difference, however, where one person is capable of a higher cognitive load on his working memory than another.

The definition of Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is about how human memory functions are used during learning or carrying out (learning) activities. In the human cognitive architecture, information enters the brain in the form of stimuli. The brain subsequently sends part of these to the working memory.

If this information isn’t used, we simply forget it. If we do use this information, it is stored in long-term memory, in so-called schemas. CLT is aimed at optimally utilising the limited space available in working memory.

The principle of the Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is based on different assumptions about how the brain works, where a distinction is made between the short-term and long-term memory. Short-term memory serves as a knapsack; the first thing you put in isn’t retrieved as easily and the last thing you put in is reached quickly.

Allowing information to slowly enter into long-term memory via short-term memory requires repetition and means the processed information must be linked to already existing information in the brain.

Short-term memory only has the capacity to store very limited amounts of information at a time. It’s only when information is passed on to the long-term memory that there is plenty of space in short-term memory again.

Separate Pieces in Sweller’s theory

Sweller’s theory mainly applies to cognitively complex information. He asks the central question of why it’s difficult to learn and retain such information more easily.

With the cognitive load theory, he offers handles to effectively learn complex information. During the learning process, it’s important to minimise the students’ cognitive load without them being able to sit back and not having to put in any effort at all.

Too much stuffing of information doesn’t yield anything in the long term. During his research, Sweller discovered that information is much better retained when it’s offered in separate pieces. This allows us to properly process these so-called schemas and consequently retain these better.

The greater whole will be processed much more effectively when it’s first subdivided into individual pieces. When someone asks for directions to the train station, another person may provide a full list including street names.

The first person will mainly stare blankly ahead and politely nod his head. Chances are he won’t find the way to the train station. By slowly taking the other through the process, the person will better retain the information. Subsequently, it’s important that the person looking for the station is given the opportunity to state the route out loud.

For example, this would look as follows:

  • ‘Go straight ahead here and turn right at the 2nd traffic light, then you walk until you get to a Jumbo supermarket and take a left there. Then walk this street all the way to the end. You will see a little bridge on the right side. Cross this bridge and you’ll arrive at the train station.’
  • ‘So I should first go straight ahead and turn right at the 2nd traffic light? And then walk to the supermarket and turn right again?’
  • ‘No, you turn left there.’
  • ‘Oh, of course, 2nd traffic light right, supermarket left. At the end is a bridge that I need to cross, right?’
  • ‘That’s correct. All in all it’s about a fifteen-minute walk.’
  • ‘Thank you.’

Because the person giving directions uses small pieces of information and repeats it, the other person is able to retain the new information more quickly.


According to Sweller, the capacity of long-term memory consists of so-called ‘sophisticated’ structures. These structures are known as schemas that allow us to treat the greater whole as separate parts.

Schemas are constantly made in the brain. The schematic structures are important during learning. During the learning process, a change occurs in the schematic structures of the long-term memory.

As an individual practices and repeats and thus becomes more familiar with the (new) information, he is able to associate the cognitive characteristics with the material increasingly easier.

Consequently, the information is picked up and processed more quickly and more efficiently by short-term memory.

Cognitive Load Theory tools

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) concerns techniques for reducing the load on the working memory, or the short-term memory. Research by John Sweller showed that a number of matters can serve as tools in this process. The most common ones are listed below:

  1. Use schemas, pictures or other visual aspects. This allows for new information to be processed quickly. Retaining information is easier and the cognitive load is lower.
  2. Have students make schemas or overviews in the form of mind maps themselves. This means they will retain the information better and more easily and have a lower cognitive load.
  3. Distraction is lethal to good concentration. Eliminate well-known distractions such as mobile phone, laptop and loud music. This allows students to better absorb and process the information quickly and correctly. Too many stimuli demands too much cognitive load.
  4. In case of heavy demands, mention what the students are working towards. This allows students to set the interim steps themselves and helps them to better understand the usefulness of all information and process it.
  5. Don’t offer unnecessary information; this strains the working memory, leaving no space for useful information.

3 Types of cognitive load

The CLT is used by many professionals, for example by teachters, who share instructional materials with their students and experience the split attention effect.

CLT hypothetically offers an explanation for and insights regarding the way short-term memory functions. It is often applied in the spectrum of didactics. Within CLT, we can distinguish three types of cognitive loads:

1. Intrinsic cognitive load

This concerns cognitive load that is inherent to the learning task or the learning materials. The more complex this information is, the larger the intrinsic load.

This complexity is mostly connected to the number of components and the interactions between these components. When learning a new language, it’s fairly easy to learn 30 verbs. It’s much more complex to learn the conjugations and produce grammatically correct sentences.

2. Germane cognitive load

This is cognitive load that is useful during learning and ensures that separate pieces are constructed into one whole.

3. Extraneous cognitive load

This cognitive load does not contribute to learning at all; in fact, it can hinder learning enormously. All extraneous load must therefore be eliminated during the learning process.

No Minimising

With Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), short-term memory is utilised as well as possible. This should not be translated into minimising the load. Learning doesn’t have to be made simple and effortless.

The goal of the Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is to optimise the learning process. The use of divided pieces of information ensures that schemas in the brain are effectively and efficiently built-up and automated.

In doing so, the cognitive load shouldn’t exceed the limits of working memory. Making good use of the Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) makes learning easier and more fun.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Are you familiar with teh Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more additions? What are your success factors for a good learning strategy?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Clark, R. C., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2011). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Sweller, J. (2011). Cognitive load theory. In Psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 55, pp. 37-76). Academic Press.
  3. Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design. Learning and instruction, 4(4), 295-312.

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Original publication date: 12/24/2017 | Last update: 07/29/2023

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Patty Mulder
Article by:

Patty Mulder

Patty Mulder is an Dutch expert on Management Skills, Personal Effectiveness and Business Communication. She is also a Content writer, Business Coach and Company Trainer and lives in the Netherlands (Europe).
Note: all her articles are written in Dutch and we translated her articles to English!


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