Cognitive Load Theory – the right kind of load

Basic idea:

Thinking hard is a good thing! We only learn effectively if we have to invest effort into it. Cognitive load theory is a way of thinking about where students’ effort should be directed so that it is most beneficial. It identifies three types of ‘load’ which can be present in a task; intrinsic, extrinsic and germane. More detailed summaries of these can be accessed via the ‘further reading’ section, but a basic summary of the theory is that we should try to minimise extraneous load, whilst maximising germane load.

‘Extraneous load’ can occur when poorly presented information provides a needless extra processing load (extraneous load). For example labelling on a diagram is not immediately clear or easy to understand. We should be careful how we present information to children, minimising this processing burden where possible.

Instead we should think about how to structure lessons so that they provide germane load. Germane load is the term for cognitive processes which focus the attention of learners directly on the pieces of knowledge that we want them to know and the relationships between these. For example, doing three different revision tasks may be harder than repeating the same task three times, but this difficulty is useful, and it leads to more effective learning. The load here is germane, rather than extraneous to the task.

Suggestions for practice:

  • Find ways of reducing extraneous load. Breaking material down into stages or chunks can help. Another example is that presenting information pictorially rather than verbally can often help students to take it in more efficiently, for example through a graphic organiser.
  • Focus on maximising germane load, by alerting students’ attention to their own learning processes. This might involve using some of the other study skills mentioned in this section, such as testing or elaboration. These might seem harder at the time, but lead to better learning in the long term.

Further reading:

Team this idea with Working Memory and Load theory of Attention

Cognitive Load Theory – the right kind of load

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