Cognitive load theory in practice
This publication was originally published November 2018.
Introduction: Cognitive load theory in practice
Understanding how human brains learn can help teachers to employ more effective teaching methods. This publication is designed to help teachers incorporate cognitive load theory into their teaching practice. It is intended to be a practical resource, and uses examples from the NSW syllabuses to illustrate how teachers can use cognitive load theory in the classroom.
What is cognitive load theory?
Dylan Wiliam has described cognitive load theory as ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’. Cognitive load theory uses knowledge of the human brain to design teaching strategies that will maximise learning. It provides theoretical and empirical support for explicit models of instruction, in which teachers show students what to do and how to do it, rather than having them discover or construct information for themselves. Cognitive load theory is about optimising the load on students’ working memories to help maximise their learning.
Teaching strategies from cognitive load theory
Cognitive load theory is supported by a robust evidence base which shows that students learn best when they are given explicit instruction accompanied by lots of practice and feedback. Through a significant number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs), researchers have identified a number of strategies that can help teachers to maximise student learning. These strategies work by optimising the load on students’ working memories.
Strategy 1: Tailor lessons according to students’ existing knowledge and skill.
Strategy 2: Use worked examples to teach students new content or skills.
Strategy 3: Gradually increase independent problem-solving as students become more proficient.
Strategy 4: Cut out inessential information.
Strategy 5: Present all the essential information together.
Strategy 6: Simplify complex information by presenting it both orally and visually.
Strategy 7: Encourage students to visualise concepts and procedures that they have learnt.
Purpose of resource
The ‘Cognitive load theory in practice’ resource is a practical resource designed to help teachers incorporate cognitive load theory into their teaching practice. It uses examples from the NSW syllabuses to illustrate how teachers can use cognitive load theory in the classroom.
When and how to use
This resource is a practical guide, and is accompanied by the Cognitive load theory literature review. School leaders and teachers can read, reflect on, discuss and implement the practical strategies highlighted in the guide 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 the practical resource 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
- encourage teachers to reflect on classroom implementation during professional development
- reflect on how teachers currently incorporate 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 practical resource and reflect on current practice
- complete the Cognitive load theory in practice MyPL course to reflect on the practical strategies and relate them to their own practice
- determine an appropriate teaching strategy from 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 – Standards 1.2 and 3.3.
Reviewed by: Externally reviewed by Emeritus Professor John Sweller; internal review by colleagues across the department.
Created/last updated: Originally published November 2018.
To be reviewed: CESE publications are prepared through a rigorous process. Resources are reviewed periodically as part of an ongoing evaluation plan.