Cognitive Load Theory

Humans are simple in a way: Information comes in through our senses, stuff happens in the brain, and then the information is used. When I say information, I really mean what you see, feel, hear, touch, taste, and think. This information is re-packaged in the brain. Repackaging takes resources. The quantity of resources the brain requires depends on the Cognitive Load. In other words, it is the weight of information.

The context of this article is learning, processing of information, and its applications.

The Concept Of Cognitive Load

A general consensus among scientists is that information carries something called as Cognitive Load when it enters our brain via the working memory - that is the memory we use to hold bits of information for a short duration. That’s the memory we use while paying attention to details in a classroom. Cognitive Load is, essentially, a resource-demand by the information & brain.

Working memory plays a pivotal role in a person’s learning process. But, working memory has a limited capacity. It is vulnerable to overload, especially when we are learning complicated novel concepts. In such a case, the learner has to exert extra effort to process the information. Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental activity imposed on the working memory in any one instant. Cognitive load tells us how much to tax a person’s working memory since it is prone to overloading while handling complex information.

Cognitive load is influenced by the number of elements that are interacting with each other in the working memory - the numerous bits of information that have to be processed simultaneously. There is only a certain amount of data that the person can hold onto. Higher the information that is delivered at once, likelier it is that the person will not retain it. As a result, to enhance learning, it is vital to manage cognitive load efficiently.

There are three types of cognitive load:

  • Intrinsic
  • Extraneous
  • Germane

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

Intrinsic cognitive load represents the inherent complexity or difficulty involved in certain tasks or material. Some activities are harder to gain mastery over than others. If they are more difficult, they can cause an intrinsic cognitive load. For example, solving a complex calculus problem is much more difficult than a basic mathematical calculation like 4 + 4.

Intrinsic cognitive load is associated with the nature and subject matter of the task or problem itself that the learner finds arduous and challenging. Intrinsic load is governed by the number of elements that interact with each other, which all have to be processed simultaneously, making the task more complicated. If there are a large number of elements that the person needs to attend to at once, the intrinsic load will be higher than in the case of low element interactivity. This can be illustrated in the case of interpreting graphs, where a simple bar graph is easier to understand than a complex histogram with too many parameters.

The inherent difficulty of the content cannot be changed, but it can be managed according to the learner’s prior knowledge regarding the material, aptitude, as well as the capacity for learning. According to John Sweller, who developed the Cognitive Load Theory, the intrinsic cognitive load can “only be altered by changing the nature of what is learned or by the act of learning itself.” For instance, instead of using a cursive, scribbly font, one can use a more plain and legible one to reduce the load on the reader.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

Extraneous cognitive load is the type of load created by the way information is presented to the person. The cognitive load is the result of irrelevant or unimportant pieces of information that are given to the person. For example, in online articles, you find multiple advertisements and pictures that serve no actual purpose and are included merely to make the item more attractive. These are the inessential pieces of information that interfere with the learning process and cause an extraneous load.

This load can be the result of unproductive methods of teaching that throw off the learner and makes learning unnecessarily confusing and complicated. For example, if a graph and its corresponding text are not combined efficiently, then the person will need to use extra cognitive effort going back and forth between the graph and text, which will hinder learning.

Extraneous load is the outcome that comes with background noise. Think of when you’re trying to study and are disturbed by the dogs barking, cars honking, loud music or talking. These various noises act as obstacles to the completion of the task and are deemed as extraneous load. It is not entirely necessary to reduce the extraneous cognitive load to help learning. There is evidence that moderate extraneous load in some cases can benefit the learner. The interaction of noise and focused attention on learning is complex and has circumstantial pros and cons.

Germane Cognitive Load

Not all cognitive load is damaging. Germane cognitive load is the result of the constructive method of handling information, in a way that contributes to learning. Therefore, germane load refers to the work that is put into constructing a long-lasting store of knowledge or schema. This significantly accelerates the learning process. A typical example would be creating flowcharts in presentations to explain complex concepts. The systematic organization of information makes it easier to learn and remember.


Germane load involves developing patterns of thoughts or behavior to organize categories of information. The more practiced the use of these behavioral schemas becomes, the more effortless the behavior becomes. This is displayed when envisioning different kinds of scenarios, for instance, when there are earthquake or fire drills conducted in schools. In such cases, people have to go over multiple solutions and ultimately construct an effective one and carry it out systematically. The repetition of such training promotes learning how to react and behave in the actual emergency. This type of cognitive load is encouraged.

Germane cognitive load can be promoted through the use of mnemonics, including acrostics, rhyme schemes, etc. all of which can make learning easier. For example, the acronym BODMAS is used to remember the order of operations in mathematics, which follows the sequence: brackets, orders (powers, square and cube roots), division, multiplication, addition, and subtraction.

Cognitive load theory
Just like the machine crunching debris, the brain has specialised tools to manage and crunch information. Cognitive load indicates the power needed to do the job.

To summarize, cognitive load, depending on its type, can either be detrimental or helpful in learning. So, to have an effective learning process, one needs to:

  • manage intrinsic load
  • optimize extraneous load
  • promote germane load

Special Notes: Applying Cognitive Load In The Real World:

  1. Extraneous load may need to reduced or increased based on a number of factors – attentional demands for a task, whether or not the learner has difficulties with attention, type of task, etc.
  2. Intrinsic cognitive load is complex to understand in the real world. Simplifying content might make it more readable, but it may also hamper memory. Research shows that hard-to-read fonts aid memory formation. Read the article on how fonts affect cognition (linked below).
  3. Creative thinking and divergent think are both promoted by obscuring information (construal level theory). It might help to increase extraneous cognitive load through background music or trying to focus on details with a bird’s eye view.
  4. Germane load can be further optimized by using efficient study methods. Pure quantities of an increased germane load may not help. However, increased germane cognitive load with a proper strategy will help.

Application example: You might want to check out this video on teaching math to children which applies the cognitive load theory. There are some neat real-life examples of how you can manipulate cognitive load in the classroom.

Source : Cognitive Load Theory

Author: Aditya Bhuyan

I am an IT Professional with close to two decades of experience. I mostly work in open source application development and cloud technologies. I have expertise in Java, Spring and Cloud Foundry.

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