Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand
This report was originally published 5 September 2017.
This literature review provides an overview of cognitive load theory, which is a theory of how human brains learn and store knowledge. Dylan Wiliam has described cognitive load theory as ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’. Grounded in a robust evidence base, cognitive load theory provides support for explicit models of instruction.
The human brain can only process a small amount of new information at once, but it can process very large amounts of stored information.
Information is processed in the working memory, where small amounts of information are stored for a very short time. The average person can only hold about four ‘chunks’ of information in their working memory at one time.
Long-term memory is where large amounts of information are stored semi-permanently. Information is stored in the long-term memory in ‘schemas’, which provide a system for organising and storing knowledge.
If a student’s working memory is overloaded, there is a risk that they will not understand the content being taught and that their learning will be slow and/or ineffective.
With extensive practice, information can be automatically recalled from long-term memory with minimal conscious effort. This ‘automation’ reduces the burden on working memory, because when information can be accessed automatically, the working memory is freed up to learn new information.
Cognitive load theory provides support for explicit models of instruction.
Cognitive load theory is supported by a significant number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). This large body of evidence indicates that instruction is most effective when it is designed according to the limitations of working memory.
Cognitive load theory indicates that when teaching students new content and skills, teachers are more effective when they provide explicit guidance accompanied by practice and feedback, not when they require students to discover for themselves many aspects of what they must learn.
Research from cognitive load theory has produced a number of instructional techniques that are directly transferable to the classroom.
These include the ‘worked example effect’, which is the widely replicated finding that novice learners who are given worked examples to study perform better on subsequent tests than learners who are required to solve the equivalent problems themselves.
Another finding is the 'expertise reversal effect', which shows that as students become more proficient at solving a particular type of problem, they should gradually be given more opportunities for independent problem solving.
Purpose of resource
The ‘Cognitive load theory: research that teachers really need to understand’ resource provides school leaders and teachers with an overview of cognitive load theory. It supports schools with explicit models of instruction to support learners.
When and how to use
This resource is a literature review, and is accompanied by the ‘Cognitive load theory in practice’ practical guide. School leaders and teachers can read, reflect on, discuss and implement principles highlighted in the report as part of school-developed High Impact Professional Learning (HIPL).
The appropriate time to use this resource may differ for each school, leader and teacher.
School leaders can:
- unpack an area of the report as part of whole-school professional development and/or stage or grade team meetings. You may find this PowerPoint presentation helpful: Managing cognitive load through effective presentations
- determine a focus area from the report and encourage teachers to share key findings and reflect on classroom implementation during professional development
- reflect on how teachers currently use principles of cognitive load theory in daily practice
- facilitate discussions with staff about areas to improve across the school
- support staff to find connections between What works best, the School Excellence Framework and cognitive load theory
- display the Cognitive load theory poster.
- read the literature review and summary, or listen to the audio paper, and reflect on current practice
- complete the Cognitive load theory MyPL course to connect their understanding of the research to their own practice
- determine an aspect of cognitive load theory to implement in the classroom
- reflect on the impact of implementation.
Alignment to system priorities and/or needs: School Excellence Policy.
Alignment to School Excellence Framework: Teaching domain – effective classroom practice.
Alignment with other existing frameworks: What works best - explicit teaching; Australian Professional Standards for Teachers - Standard 1.2.
Reviewed by: This publication was externally reviewed by the CESE Advisory Council and Emeritus Professor John Sweller.
Created/last updated: Originally published 5 September 2017.
To be reviewed: CESE publications are prepared through a rigorous process. Resources are reviewed periodically as part of an ongoing evaluation plan.