John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory

January 14, 2019

John Sweller’s cognitive load theory suggests that people learn in a better way under conditions that align with human cognitive architecture.

Cognitive load is related to the amount of information the working memory can store at once. Working memory has a limited capacity. Therefore, according to Sweller, instructional methods should avoid overloading it. Additional activities that don’t directly contribute to learning commonly overload working memory.

Sweller created a theory that treats a combination of elements as the cognitive structures that form the foundation of an individual’s knowledge. He did this after recognizing George Miller’s information processing research, which shows that short-term memory is limited in terms of the number of elements it can contain simultaneously.

Sweller argued that instructional design can reduce students’ cognitive load. Much later, other researchers developed a way to measure perceived mental effort, which indicates cognitive load.

One of the important points of John Sweller’s cognitive load theory is that a heavy cognitive load can negatively affect the completion of a task. In addition, not everyone experiences cognitive load in the same way.

Gears represent the inner workings of the brain, even though the brain is far more complex.

John Sweller’s cognitive load theory

For cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the effort used in working memory. Sweller designed this theory to provide guidelines to assist in the presentation of information. His goal was to encourage student activities that optimize intellectual performance.

Thus, he considered the contents of long-term memory sophisticated structures that allow us to perceive, think and solve problems. These structures, called schema, allow us to treat multiple elements as one. Thus, the schema form the knowledge base. We acquire them through a lifetime of learning. Schema may even have other schema contained within them.

The difference between an expert and a novice is that a novice has not acquired the schema of an expert. Learning requires a change in the schematic structures of long-term memory, demonstrated by progressive performance. This change in performance occurs because, as we get more and more familiar with the material, the cognitive characteristics associated with the material are modified so that the working memory can handle them more efficiently.

For schema acquisition to occur, instructions must be designed to reduce the load on our working memory. John Sweller’s cognitive load theory deals with techniques used to reduce the burden of working memory in order to facilitate the changes in long-term memory associated with the acquisition of schema.

Principles of Sweller’s cognitive load theory

The specific recommendations regarding the design of instructional material that John Sweller proposes in his cognitive load theory include:

  • Change problem-solving methods by using problems without goals or solved examples. The goal is to avoid approaches that impose a heavy working memory load.
  • Eliminate the working memory load associated with the need to mentally integrate several sources of information through the physical integration of those sources of information.
  • Eliminate the working memory load associated with the unnecessary processing of repetitive information by reducing redundancy.
  • Increase the capacity of working memory by using auditory and visual information where both sources of information are essential (not redundant) for understanding.

Key points of the cognitive load theory

As we’ve seen, the cognitive load theory refers to an instructional design that reflects our cognitive architecture or the way we process information. During learning, the information must remain in the working memory until processed enough to pass to the long-term memory.

The working memory has a very limited capacity. When too much information is presented at once, we feel overwhelmed and much of that information is lost. 

The cognitive load theory makes learning more efficient with training methods that reflect this. These methods include:

  • Measuring experience and adapting instruction.
  • Reducing the number of problems by dividing them into parts and using partially completed problems and solved examples.
  • The fusion of multiple sources of visual information whenever possible.
  • The expansion of the working memory capacity through the use of visual and auditory channels.

Cognitive load theory.

Knowledge and critical thinking

One of the ideas brought up by the cognitive load theory is that “knowing things” is necessary to think critically about these things. This also suggests that two of the main information processing activities (knowledge acquisition and problem-solving) should be considered separately, focusing first on the schema and then on solving problems.

In this sense, Sweller suggests that problem-solving and domain knowledge aren’t directly proportional due to how the brain works. Problem-solving occupies a “crucial brain bandwidth” that reduces what’s left to learn new things. Of course, this has significant implications for the way teachers can design lessons, units, and evaluations.

  • Clarck, R., Sweller, J., & Nguyen, F. (2006). Efficiency in learning. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
  • 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).