Kirschner, P. A. (2002). Cognitive load theory: implications of cognitive load theory on the design of learning. Learning and Instruction, 12(1). 1-10. doi: 10.1016/S0959-4752(01)00014-7


Kirschner’s article is an overview of cognitive load theory (CLT) as it relates to instructional design. The author points out modern strategies for the design of learning known as competency-based learning. Kirschner lists some of these competencies as the ability to:

  • Operate in ill-defined and ever-changing environments
  • Deal with non-routine and abstract work processes
  • Handle decisions and responsibilities
  • Work in groups
  • Understand dynamic systems
  • Operate within expanding geographical and time horizons

According to the author, learning to think this way has many advantages. Gaining these skills allows students to apply them in a large variety of situations throughout their life, rather than focusing on traditional strictly knowledge-based topics. Learning and using these competencies can be challenging for learners because of the level of cognitive load it requires. Kirschner suggests that an understanding of CLT can help instructional designers accomplish this. He provides summary of six CLT articles with additional context to tie them together and explain how understanding of CLT can help in instructional design.

Key Points:

  • Why is this important?
    • Instructional design for competency-based skills is fundamentally different from traditional instructional design.
    • Cognition, meta-cognition and transfer are the most important variables in competency-based learning.
    • There is a need to better understand and take into account the limitations of the human mind in order to teach these skills effectively.
  • Working memory
    • Working memory, sometimes referred to as short-term memory, is your cognitive process of attention. It involves your brain processing stimuli.
    • Your brain’s capacity for working memory is limited, and can only process about seven pieces of information at a time.
    • It is made up of two main components, visuospatial sketchpad and phonological loop, which are coordinated by the central executive.
  • Long-term memory
    • Long-term memory stores information for later recall.
    • It is understood to be basically unlimited.
  • Schema
    • The brain can understand complex concepts by organizing information into schema in long-term memory and processing them in smaller pieces in working memory.
    • Learning is the process of slowly building these schema in organized hierarchies.
  • Cognitive load (CL)
    • Cognitive load involves the concept that there is a limit to working memory and when it is exceeded we have trouble transferring between working and long-term memory.
    • CLT as it relates to education design can be summed up with the following question: “How can the instructional designer assure that the limits of the learner’s working memory load are not exceeded when he or she is processing instruction?”
  • Germane CLT
    • Traditionally CLT if focused on removing extraneous CL.
    • Germane CLT focuses on increasing relevant CL to speed up learning, without exceeding the limits of working memory.
  • Summarized Article Topics:
    • Presenting instructional techniques for increasing germane CL in studying worked examples (van Merriënboer, Schuurman, De Croock, & Paas),
    • Effects of example elaboration training on decreasing cognitive interference and overload (Stark, Mandl, Gruber, & Renkl),
    • CLT-based instructional design when dealing with very high element interactivity material (Pollock, Chandler, & Sweller),
    • Effects of worked examples on CL in older learners (Van Gerven, Paas, & Schmidt),
    • A cognitive theory of multimedia learning (Mayer & Moreno)
    • The use of external representations to help manage CL in Computer Supported Collaborative Learning environments (Van Bruggen, Kirschner, & Jochems).
  • Consequences of CLT in instructional design
    • Kirschner presents several questions to consider as these six articles relate to instructional design.

Design principles:

  • It is important to have a basic understanding of CLT to engage in instructional design, especially in competency-based learning applications.
  • Instructional designers should both limit extraneous cognitive load as much as possible and balance germane (relevant) cognitive load.
  • Teaching vocabulary and other background prior to the main subjects helps divide CL and increase understanding.
  • Lifelong learning increases the importance of understanding the effects of age on CL.
  • Coding long term memory via both working memory channels simultaneously via multimedia can improve CL capacity.
  • Computer supported collaborative learning environments offer unique challenges and opportunities as learning relates to CLT, and should be considered especially when designing these environments and courses that use them.


Example work:

Wagler (2019) explores how students use computer supported collaborative learning environments, and analyzes the user experience of these environments. Cognitive load is discussed as it relates to the usability of these environments as students are often bombarded with information.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is a common example where students are subjected to too much CL?
  2. What are some strategies for removing extraneous CL?
  3. List some examples of multimedia learning that can take advantage of visuospatial and phonetic working memory simultaneously to increase CL capacity?
  4. How can technology be utilized to improve learning retention through CLT, and what are some pitfalls of technology related to CLT?

Additional Resources:



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