Shannon Westlake


Ontario Tech University


Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) continues to be an important aspect for teaching and developing curriculum as it takes into consideration the human ability to process information. The working memory of a learner is limited and when it is overloaded, slows down information processing. This chapter discusses how facilitators must take into consideration the cognitive load and working memory of the learner, with emphasis on the use of technology and multimedia in education. This chapter discusses key concepts for understanding the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Principles for reducing cognitive load of the learning are discussed to provide guidance for reducing cognitive load on the learner. Segmenting learning helps to present information in smaller chunks, while worked examples support teaching procedural steps. The multimedia principle helps to improve meaning and processing information through the use of videos and narration. Contiguity refers to having images and text close together, or having images and narration synchronized to reduce cognitive load. The modality principle indicates that working memory is increased when material is presented using visual and auditory methods. The redundancy principle refers to removing duplicate or unnecessary information and facilitators should weed out extraneous material to adhere to the coherence principle. The personalization principle refers to using conversational tones instead of formal language (in text and narration), as well as providing control for the learner to move through content at their own pace. Khan Academy, Codecademy, and Gizmos are free online learning applications described in the chapter to act as examples of CLT in use. Changes from traditional practice of assessing right and wrong answers to assessing knowledge of advanced schemas, expertise, and cognitive load are discussed as a future recommendation.

Keywords: cognitive load theory, multimedia, working memory, zone of proximal development.


Advances in technology have made an impact on the amount of information educators and students have access to at their fingertips. Technology can help personalize the learning environment and improve access to education; “integration of technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge can be designed to create learning experiences that operate to produce high, natural yields in what is learned” (Fullan, 2013, p. 17). To make learning easier, facilitators must assess the intrinsic cognitive load on the learner and adjust the extraneous and germane cognitive loads when creating multimedia learning environments. When facilitators follow guiding principles that help reduce cognitive load, it creates “instructional environments that minimize extraneous cognitive processing” (Clark & Mayer, 2011, p. 39).

Background Information

The Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) was developed in the 1980s by John Sewell and focused on the burden on the learner’s cognitive process when learning new topics or problem solving (Chandler & Sweller, 1991). CLT is broken down into three categories to manage working memory load: intrinsic cognitive load, extraneous, and germane (Paas et al., 2003). Intrinsic cognitive load infers that some content cannot be altered in anyway and will always have the same level of difficulty. Extraneous cognitive load means that the information can be altered so that only critical information is available to the learning and unnecessary or redundant information is removed. For example, removing photographs that do not add to the learning experience in a meaningful way. Germane cognitive load infers that learning can be enhanced when relevant content is arranged or laid out in a way that helps the learner construct knowledge, such as when key points are bolded or when information is presented in smaller chunks, from simple to more complex. In this way, the CLT is related to the Elaboration Theory as it relies on the learning gradually building on prior knowledge (Paas et al, 2003).

Principles to Reduce Cognitive Load

Learners have a limited amount of short-term and working memory which they use to connect new pieces of information with information stored in their long-term memory (Clark, & Mayer, 2011). When working memory is overloaded, learners process information more slowly (van Merriënboer & Sweller, 2005). Learners must be challenged through meaningful learning to develop complex schemas by “combining elements consisting of lower level schemas into higher level schemas” (Paas, Renkl, & Sweller, 2003, p. 2). The following principles provide guidance for reducing the cognitive load of the learner.

Segmenting Principle.

Information must be organized and presented in smaller steps or chunks based on key concepts so as to not overwhelm the learner and minimize distractions (Clark & Mayer, 2011). If the learner must know key concepts or terms, it is best to provide that to them in a pre-training section so they are not trying to learn new concepts or new terminology at the same time (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). Knowing key concepts makes it easier to provide a deeper explanation of segmented material, supporting transfer of knowledge and prompting students to ask deep questions (Halpern et al., 2007, p. 9). Information presented in text tends to be linear. However, multimedia can be presented in auditory, visual, and text at the same time which can strain the nervous system (Halpern et al., 2007). When information is not segmented effectively, “audio and visual elements in a lesson interfere with human cognition” (Clark & Mayer, 2011, p. 25). Relevant images and narration should be organized together instead of using text so learners can conceptualize the content (Mayer & Moreno, 2003).

Worked Examples Principle.

When learning a new concept, learners tend to prefer to learn from examples over reading text. Worked examples help learners develop procedural skills by breaking down a task and modelling how to solve a problem (Clark & Mayer, 2011; Moreno, 2006). This method helps the learner develop schemas by removing solved steps backwards until the learner solves the problem from the beginning (Moreno, 2006). When there is no direct interaction with the learner, worked examples help support far-transfer of skills and knowledge (Moreno, 2006; Moreno & Mayer, 2007). There is an increased cognitive load when visuals and text are presented at the same time in multimedia lessons, learning is enhanced when students have a visual representation with audio narration (Moreno & Mayer, 1999).

Worked Example Critiques.

Worked examples may not be enough for the learner to construct deep learning and may cause the learner to only look at the surface (Moreno, 2006). This can be compared to massed practice where learners are under the illusion that they are mastering the subject when in reality they are only gaining familiarity with the subject (Brown et al., 2014). Worked examples can also be redundant if the learner is more knowledgeable (van Merriënboer & Sweller, 2005). Learning is often less productive when it is easy, “learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful” (Brown et al., 2014, p. 3).

Multimedia Principle.

When text, audio, and visuals are displayed in multimedia, learners tend to have sensory overload (Paas et al., 2003). Furthermore, “the demands on working memory can exceed capacity when there is auditory input that does not match written text and there is visual animation” (Halpern et al., 2007, p. 7). Clark & Mayer (2011) suggest that e-learning courses should use meaningful graphics and text, over text alone as the novice learner may not make connections to their previous knowledge without a meaningful image. Facilitators should reduce the use of decorative or representational graphics, and increase the use of interpretive, transformational, or organizational graphics when teaching facts, concepts, processes, procedures, or principles (Clark & Mayer, 2011). Using the appropriate graphics takes into account the limit of a learners working memory because they have not developed the capacity to “interpret dynamic visual information” (Moreno, 2007, p. 777).

Contiguity Principle.

The contiguity principle refers to printed words or narration that are aligned or synchronized with graphics to improve information processing for the learner (Clark & Mayer, 2011). The spatial-contiguity effect places text and images physically close to one another to improve transfer of learning (Moreno & Mayer, 1999). The temporal-contiguity effect improves learning by having visual and narration synchronized (Moreno & Mayer, 1999). Instead of having words and images separated, facilitators should have them as close together as possible. When creating multimedia, graphics and narration should be synchronous to enhance retention.

Modality Principle.

When using multimedia, brief, clear narration is better understood by the learner than on-screen text to describe graphics (Clark & Mayer 2011; Mayer & Moreno, 2003). Working memory is increased when material is presented in the form of both visual and auditory modes as “many studies also show that attention can be better divided between the eye and ear than between two auditory or two visual channels” (Moreno & Mayer, 1999, p. 359). Learners may miss important visuals if they are also reading on-screen text, therefore, facilitators should use a mixed-modality method to take advantage of both visual and auditory channels when integrating multimedia in education (Moreno & Mayer, 2007).

Redundancy Principle.

The redundancy principle refers to information that is not important for learning and could actually hinder the learning process (Chandler & Sewell, 1991). Learners may not necessarily know what information is redundant if it is new to them.  Cognitive load could increase when learners are presented with or asked to elaborate on redundant information, having a negative effect on learning (Moreno, 2006). When creating multimedia for education, avoid duplicating narration and text, especially if there is animation. Transfer of learning improves when narration is used over text but when there is no animation, text and narration help students learn (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). Using text and narration alone in multimedia works best when there is no competition for the learner’s attention between text and graphics and narration alone is hard to process (Clark & Mayer, 2011).

Coherence Principle.

The coherence principle refers to removing any extraneous materials (Halpern et al., 2007, p. 7). Background music, unnecessary sounds, text or graphics, even if they seem interesting, can cause cognitive overload, distracting the learner as they try to process the material (Clark & Mayer, 2011). “The robustness of the coherence effect provides strong evidence for the viability of weeding as a method for reducing cognitive load” (Mayer & Moreno, 2003, p. 48).

Personalization Principle.

Technology allows for “each student to learn on his or her own, with the teachers’ coaching and guidance” (Prensky, 2010, p. 17). Using polite, conversational language as opposed to formal language when developing course material helps create a personalized learning environment (Clark & Mayer, 2011). The research demonstrates that “people work harder to understand material when they feel they are in a conversation with a partner, rather than simply receiving information” (Clark & Mayer, 2011, p. 184). When using multimedia, transfer of learning improves when learners have control to review or progress through sections at their own pace (Clark & Mayer, 2011). In online courses, facilitators should also consider having online coaches, such as avatars or help buttons so learners feel supported as they navigate through information.

Zone of Proximal Development

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) refers to the learning that a student can do on their own, and the scaffolded learning that is done with a teacher or facilitator until the learner no longer requires assistance (Danish, Saleh, Andrade, & Bryan, 2017). The learners ZPD is dependent on their individual needs, their prior knowledge, skill level, and the level of difficulty they require to maintain motivation without tasks becoming too easy or too difficult (Halpern, Graesser, & Hakel, 2007). When learners are in the ZPD, their best learning occurs as it allows “them to completely engage with ideas that would normally be beyond their reach thanks to the support from more capable others” (Danish et al., 2017, p. 7). Understanding where students are in the ZPD allows facilitators to engage students in learning more effectively by reducing the cognitive load on the learner.


When the curriculum is designed effectively, the cognitive load of the learner is reduced which allows the learner to maximize their working memory. Developing long-term memory is a “dynamic, evolving structure which holds both a memory for past experiences and a memory for general domain knowledge” (Moreno & Mayer, 2007, p. 313). When integrating technology in the curriculum, applications should be segmented in smaller chunks, using worked examples for developing problem solving skills and following multimedia principles. Where possible, moving through different segments should be controlled by the learner. The context of the curriculum and learning should be geared towards the use of real-life examples to motivate learners and increase transfer of learning. There are several applications currently found online that are examples of CLT in use that will be discussed. All online tools discussed are free, making it easier for the facilitator and learner to access and integrate into the current curriculum.

Khan Academy

Khan Academy (Khan Academy, n.d.) is an online learning resource that provides a personalized and interactive learning environment. It can be used by various age groups as well as for a variety of subjects such as maths, sciences, computing, and other content. This online resource allows the learner to pick the level and subject they wish to study online. The courses are structured to support learning through videos which demonstrate problem solving using the worked example principle. Each section is segmented and asks the learner follow up questions to enhance understanding. The videos contain visuals, narration, and text which would contradict the multimedia principle; however, this is an exception to the principle as it provides access to learners with visual or hearing impairments. At any time, the online coach will provide hints, suggestions, or repeat questions for personalization. The site provides instant feedback to the learner when they are completing practice problems. The site is well organized, where the learner has control to move forward or review the content at any time in line with their ZPD.


Codecademy (Codecademy, n.d.) is an interactive web-based system for learning how to write a variety of different coding languages. Learners can personalize their learning by picking which type of code they want to learn in line with their ZPD. The lessons are segmented, where learners build on their previous knowledge and gradually increase the difficulty of the material. The site reduces redundancy to focus on skill development. Worked examples are used to teach basic to advanced code writing skills. The examples the tool uses are real-life scenarios, and at any time, the learner can go back and review the content they have covered. The learning environment is further personalized through support from online coaches.


Gizmos (Gizmos, n.d.) is a web-based learning environment that allows learners to discover real-life math and science-based problems in a controlled environment. Students can select the Gizmo they would like to use based on their ZPD. The tool provides only the necessary information and content that the learner requires, reducing redundancy and distractions. Text and visuals are used instead of narration to avoid cognitive overload of the learner. The learning environment does have a help button to support personalization and material is segmented to support transfer of learning.

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

When implementing multimedia learning in the curriculum, facilitators must take into consideration the CLT so the learner can use all of their cognitive resources and be fully engaged. Knowing the learner’s prior knowledge and understanding the ZPD helps to improve use of working memory by eliminating redundancy when designing or implementing the curriculum. The principles outlined in this chapter help to reduce the cognitive load of the learner. Segmenting and personalization allow learners to gradually build on previous knowledge and move at their own pace. Learners can be distracted when using visuals and text at the same time in multimedia. The multimedia principle takes into consideration the neurological aspect of human processing where using auditory and narration at the same time improves transfer of learning over visual alone (Mayer & Moreno, 2003).

With technology advances, there is still much to learn about the principles mentioned in this chapter. Real-life examples should be used in learning to encourage higher order thinking skills. Learning must be flexible enough to personalize and adapt it to individual needs and maintain learner motivation (van Merriënboer & Sweller, 2005). Considerations must also be taken into account for learner assessment. Traditional practices consider right and wrong answers, but the use of CLT assess understanding of advanced schemas and “assess learners’ expertise on the basis of performance and cognitive load” (van Merriënboer & Sweller, 2005, p. 170). These are future considerations as CLT continues to be an important aspect when developing curriculum, taking into account the human processing capability of learners of all ages.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2019 Copyright © 2019 by Shannon Westlake is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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