Cognitive Load Theory

What You Need to Know About Cognitive Load Theory

In 1988, Australian educational psychologist and academic John Sweller, published the piece Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Thirty years later and it’s the go-to resource for teachers wanting to know more about retrieval practice, how memory is shaped and of course, cognitive load theory.

In the opening page of his paper, Sweller writes, “that contrary to current practice and many cognitive theories, some forms of problem-solving interfere with learning.”

It’s important to define what Sweller means by ‘some forms’ and ‘learning’ here. You must also understand the different types of problem-solving and the forms in which they take. It is worth mentioning that domain-specific knowledge is the acquisition of specialised structures too.

Problem Solving Categories

From his extensive research on the subject, Sweller offers three categories of problem solving:

  • Memory of problems state configurations – This piece of research on memory (Groot, 1966) looks at the differences between master chess players and their less experienced counterparts. Differences occurred in “chunk sizes with masters’ chunks being far larger than those of novices.” In other words, master players could remember larger sequences of moves.
  • Problem-solving strategies – Sweller uses mathematics as an example, where “problems can be solved using search techniques such as ‘means-end analysis’ which involves attempting to reduce differences between each problem.” Cognitive structures (schemas) allow experts to accurately recall the configuration of a given problem.
  • Features used in categorising problems – “If an expert has a schema which suggests that conservation of energy should be used to solve a particular problem, then that problem is likely to be categorised with other problems to which the same schema can apply. Domain-specific knowledge, in the form of schemas, is the major factor distinguishing experts from novices in problem-solving skill.”

Types of Cognitive Load

  • Intrinsic load – This deals with information that needs to be processed; the number of elements that must be simultaneously processed in working memory and their interaction with each other. It’s affected by both the nature of the task and by level of learner expertise, i.e. the material itself.
  • Extraneous load – This refers to the load imposed by information elements unrelated to the learning task, but related to how that task is carried out; how learning takes place. Essentially, these elements can be controlled by the person who designs the learning experience, i.e. how the material is taught.
  • Germane Load – The process of learning vs. working memory. In essence, a ‘healthy’ type of load. It has been defined by Paul A. Kirschner et al (including John Sweller, 2018) as “working memory resources devoted to dealing with intrinsic cognitive load.”

How to Utilise Cognitive Load Theory

Research suggests that we can manipulate between four and nine pieces of information at any one time. What has evolved from Sweller’s research is that various instructional techniques are recommended to unlock better learning potential.

However, it appears that problem-solving as an activity by itself is not necessarily a good learning activity. Problem-solving is only useful if students have prior knowledge and have been explicitly taught specific types of problem-solving strategies.

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