Lifting the Load

Considering Cognitive Load

If you were going to teach someone how to drive, would you rather start in a large, empty parking lot or on a busy interstate? The answer is obvious, but the reasoning is worth exploring because of the implications for teaching other things.

Experienced drivers know that driving on a busy interstate requires a variety of knowledge and skills that take time to develop. If you start a new driver on a busy interstate, they will be overwhelmed and likely endangered. In an empty parking lot, you can help them develop knowledge and skills in more manageable chunks through practice and feedback. And of course, they won’t stay in the parking lot forever; as certain processes become more automatic, they can venture out onto the roads.

The same is true in course design. In the 1980s, John Sweller began to describe the ways that overly complex tasks (like driving on a busy interstate before you’re ready) can tax the finite resources of a person’s working memory and interfere with learning. Since then, he’s continued to develop cognitive load theory, and many others have used it to make more informed decisions about course design. In a retrospective published in 2019, Sweller wrote:

Cognitive load theory aims to explain how the information processing load induced by learning tasks can affect students’ ability to process new information and to construct knowledge in long-term memory. Its basic premise is that human cognitive processing is heavily constrained by our limited working memory which can only process a limited number of information elements at a time. Cognitive load is increased when unnecessary demands are imposed on the cognitive system. If cognitive load becomes too high, it hampers learning and transfer. Such demands include inadequate instructional methods to educate students about a subject as well as unnecessary distractions of the environment. Cognitive load may also be increased by processes that are germane to learning, such as instructional methods that emphasise subject information that is intrinsically complex. In order to promote learning and transfer, cognitive load is best managed in such a way that cognitive processing irrelevant to learning is minimised and cognitive processing germane to learning is optimised, always within the limits of available cognitive capacity (van Merriënboer et al. 2006).

Thinking about this leads to questions about application in the classroom: What are some ways that we can minimize cognitive tasks unrelated to learning, focus students’ efforts and attention on tasks that result in learning, and ensure (to the best of our ability) that our assignments take into account the limits of students’ cognitive capacity?

An important first step is to acknowledge that all humans’ working memories are limited in both capacity and duration; it’s not a personal failing to have these limits. Educators have to design for learning rather than expecting what might be cognitively impossible from students.

Then, we have to take into account novice-expert differences to better assess the complexity of the tasks we assign. We have to look at them not through our own lens, that of an expert, but through the lens of a novice, for whom the pace must rightly be slowed down or the work must be divided into more manageable chunks in order for learning to be possible.

When analyzing assignments, exams, etc., it’s also important to ask whether we’ve unintentionally included tasks that require effort and attention, but are unrelated to the learning we want students to do. Here are a few sources with practical suggestions for reducing cognitive load to enhance learning:

Of course some things that affect students’ cognitive load are beyond our control. Obligations and events beyond the classroom can affect their capacity for learning, too; all of our bandwidth has been limited by the stress we’re experiencing during the pandemic. Valentina Iturbe-LaGrave, Director for Inclusive Teaching Practices at the University of Denver, provides perspective on this and practical suggestions as well.

If you’d like support to apply cognitive load theory to your course design and assignments, we’d love to help! Please email us at to set up a consultation. We look forward to working with you!