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Cognitive Load Theory (John Sweller)

This theory suggests that learning happens best under conditions that are aligned with human cognitive architecture. The structure of human cognitive architecture, while not known precisely, is discernible through the results of experimental research. Recognizing George Miller's information processing research showing that short term memory is limited in the number of elements it can contain simultaneously, Sweller builds a theory that treats schemas, or combinations of elements, as the cognitive structures that make up an individual's knowledge base. (Sweller, 1988)

The contents of long term memory are "sophisticated structures that permit us to perceive, think, and solve problems," rather than a group of rote learned facts. These structures, known as schemas, are what permit us to treat multiple elements as a single element. They are the cognitive structures that make up the knowledge base (Sweller, 1988). Schemas are acquired over a lifetime of learning, and may have other schemas contained within themselves.

The difference between an expert and a novice is that a novice hasn't acquired the schemas of an expert. Learning requires a change in the schematic structures of long term memory and is demonstrated by performance that progresses from clumsy, error-prone, slow and difficult to smooth and effortless. The change in performance occurs because as the learner becomes increasingly familiar with the material, the cognitive characteristics associated with the material are altered so that it can be handled more efficiently by working memory.

From an instructional perspective, information contained in instructional material must first be processed by working memory. For schema acquisition to occur, instruction should be designed to reduce working memory load. Cognitive load theory is concerned with techniques for reducing working memory load in order to facilitate the changes in long term memory associated with schema acquisition.


Sweller's theories are best applied in the area of instructional design of cognitively complex or technically challenging material. His concentration is on the reasons that people have difficulty learning material of this nature. Cognitive load theory has many implications in the design of learning materials which must, if they are to be effective, keep cognitive load of learners at a minimum during the learning process. While in the past the theory has been applied primarily to technical areas, it is now being applied to more language-based discursive areas.


In combining an illustration of blood flow through the heart with text and labels, the separation of the text from the illustration forces the learner to look back and forth between the specified parts of the illustration and the text. If the diagram is self-explanatory, research data indicates that processing the text unnecessarily increases working memory load. If the information could be replaced with numbered arrows in the labeled illustration, the learner could concentrate better on learning the content from the illustration alone. Alternatively, if the text is essential to intelligibility, placing it on the diagram rather than separated will reduce cognitive load associated with searching for relations between the text and the diagram (Sweller, 1999).



Specific recommendations relative to the design of instructional material include:

  1. Change problem solving methods to avoid means-ends approaches that impose a heavy working memory load, by using goal-free problems or worked examples.
  2. Eliminate the working memory load associated with having to mentally integrate several sources of information by physically integrating those sources of information.
  3. Eliminate the working memory load associated with unnecessarily processing repetitive information by reducing redundancy.
  4. Increase working memory capacity by using auditory as well as visual information under conditions where both sources of information are essential (i.e. non-redundant) to understanding.


Sweller, J., Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285 (1988).

Sweller, J., Instructional Design in Technical Areas, (Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research (1999).

This article was provided by Howard Soloman.


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