Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design. Learning and Instruction, 4(4). 295-312. doi: 10.1016/0959-4752(94)90003-5


Sweller explains that there are some concepts or problems that are more difficult to learn or solve than others. Certain factors contribute to the level of difficulty, and by understanding those factors, it is possible in some cases for instructional designers to mitigate that difficulty using cognitive load theory (CLT).

Cognitive load (CL) as it relates to learning can be artificial or intrinsic. The basic concept of CLT in instructional design is that artificial CL can be manipulated to decrease the difficulty of learning or problem solving. Intrinsic CL cannot be manipulated and relates to concepts and learnings that are inherently complex due to high element interactivity. These high-intrinsic CL concepts can be benefitted by using instructional design to remove extraneous CL. Low intrinsic CL concepts or problems can often be separated and taught in smaller parts to build schema in long-term memory, and will see less benefit from the extra effort of applying CLT to the instructional design.

Key Points:

  • Schema
    • The brain can understand complex concepts by organizing information into schema in long-term memory.
    •  As we learn new concepts, our working memory relies on schema to simplify and retain complex ideas without focusing on every irrelevant detail.
    • “Schema provide the basic unit of knowledge and through their operation can explain a substantial proportion of our learning-mediated intellectual performance.” (Sweller, 1994, p. 297)
  • Automation of Intellectual Operations
    • Certain Schema can be practiced to the extent that our brain processes them automatically without cognitive effort.
    • Reading is an example of this:
      • Children learn to read by creating a schema for letters and words and their definitions and phonetics.
      • Initially it takes a portion of the cognitive process to apply the schema and understand the concepts being read about.
      • Eventually this process becomes automatic, and no cognitive effort is used to apply the reading schema, and all the effort is dedicated to the concepts being read about.
    • As intellectual skill is developed and more schema are automated, it increases our cognitive ability when accessing those schema.
  • Effective instruction should be focused on building and automating schema.
  • Cognitive effort can be decreased by reducing artificial CL.
    • There are many strategies for doing so.
    • Sometimes concepts are simple enough not to warrant the effort of reducing artificial CL.
  • Strategies for when CLT should be applied are based on the level of difficulty, which can be identified by the amount of element interactivity.
    • Intrinsic Complexity

■ An element (learning concept) has low element interactivity if it can be broken into smaller pieces and learned separately. An example is learning vocabulary of a second language. It is difficult, but each word is much easier and can be learned independent of the rest of the language.

■ High element interactivity learning involves elements that must be learned simultaneously. Many concepts in math have high element interactivity.

Design principles:

  • As an instructional designer dealing with a difficult concept, seek to understand whether a topic is difficult because of its element interactivity, or because it is just a lot of information.
    • If the latter is true, break down the concept as much as you can into smaller concepts and teach each separately when possible.
    • If there is high element interactivity, look for strategies to reduce extraneous cognitive load.

Example work:

Liao, Chen and Shih (2019) demonstrated that cognitive load could be reduced in a game-based learning environment by adding instructional videos and collaboration, with individual and interaction effects.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the difference between intrinsic and artificial cognitive load?
  2. What is an example of a low element interactivity topic that can be made easier to learn by separating concepts and learning them one at a time? What is an example of a high element interactivity topic that requires multiple concepts to be considered simultaneously?
  3. In what ways can newer technology help reduce cognitive load when learning concepts with high intrinsic cognitive load?

Additional Resources:




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