Cognitive Load Theory and Applications in the Classroom

Posted December 6, 2017

By Blake Harvard


What is Cognitive Load Theory?

It’s a shame, really. Teachers across the world spend large sums of money on their university training. They spend large amounts of time committing to writing papers, lesson plans, learning how to write reliable/valid assessments, discovering education law, etc. But, I’m not aware of education programs that highlight how we learn. How does the brain remember? What are its potential limitations? A major goal of school is remembering information in order to change behavior. It seems plausible to me that it would help educators and students better achieve this goal if all involved actually knew how our memory works. Furthermore, after discovering the functions and limitations of our memory, how can we apply this to the classroom to optimize retention of material?

One theory describing just this is cognitive load theory (CLT). The education psychologist John Sweller is given principal credit for this theory; which emerged in the 1980s. To understand CLT, one must have a grasp of how the brain learns/remembers. After the encoding of new material, information is stored for a very brief time in our working memory. The amount of information that can be held in our working memory at a given time is limited and can vary between individuals. Information that persists beyond working memory is stored in long-term memory. CLT posits that we store information in long-term memory as schemas that organize it and allow for more efficient storage and easier retrieval.

A young man holds his hand to his face in a pose of effortful contemplation.
One of our primary goals as educators is to help students encounter new information in a way that allows them to transfer it to long-term memory where it can be accessed when needed. Managing the cognitive load in our classrooms and in our lessons is one important way to support this goal. [Image: Public Domain]

Schemas are also important in reducing cognitive load in our working memory. For instance, if asked for the colors of the rainbow, many would recall the mnemonic, ROY G. BIV, from their elementary science classes. Remembering this acronym allows our working memory to remember and retrieve a reduced load of information. The alternative would ask your working memory to either store or retrieve red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet separately. Loading your working memory with seven unrelated bits of information is very likely to cause overload. However, remembering ROY G. BIV only represents a single schema and drastically cuts down on the cognitive load of information on our working memory.

Specifically, there are three types of cognitive load. They are additive, so all three must be factored in when considering total cognitive load.

1. Intrinsic load - the complexity of the information and the experience of the learner. This is the required load in remembering/learning.

2.  Extraneous load - the bad or unnecessary load in learning. It does not contribute to retention of material and instructional practices either minimize or maximize extraneous load.

3. Germane load - the good load in learning. The necessary load shouldered by working memory to construct schemas and transfer material to long-term memory.

If we are discussing Piaget’s stages of cognitive development in my class, the student’s prior knowledge of Piaget and/or cognition represents the intrinsic load present. The instructional methods used may represent an extraneous load. For example, a complex learning strategy using a student collaboration activity may create an extraneous load as some working memory capacity must be used to remember the steps of the activity. This isn’t useful for remembering Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, but requires cognition and inhibits working memory capacity. How the actual material is remembered is the germane load. If students create a schema for the sensorimotor stage because it contains the word ‘sensory’ and they visualize the five senses, their working memory is bearing the necessary load for remembering (germane load). 

A diagram indicating that an increase in intrinsic load plus an increase of extraneous load results in an overloaded working memory.
[Image: EDUC320neeb, CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

Cognitive load theory most directly supports an explicit model for teaching. Generally, teachers using explicit instruction believe new material should be presented in a direct way that aims to scaffold learning. By beginning with the simplest of information and then building upon it, student’s working memory is allowed to create simple schemas and gradually add to them, creating more complex schemas. This model of teaching cuts down on extraneous load; thereby decreasing total cognitive load and increasing retention of material and potential processing into long-term memory.

How do I apply cognitive load theory in my classroom?

 A little background on my classroom -- I teach AP Psychology this semester to ninety 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students. Anywhere between 80-90% of the school’s total population will attend either a 2 year or 4 year college/university upon graduation. I can only assume (dangerous, I know) this percentage is equal to or higher within my student population, since it is an Advanced Placement class. Due to this high percentage of students who will attend an institution of higher learning, I believe it is imperative to introduce my students to learning strategies that show evidence of increasing retention of material. In addition to modeling and practicing these strategies, I also discuss how they can capitalize on the limitations of our working memory and, when used correctly, assist with diminishing extraneous load while maximizing retention of material.

When thinking through how I want to present material to my students, two questions come to mind:

1. How can I best present this information

(a) for incorporation into existing schemas?

(b) for proper creation of new schemas?

2. How can I best decrease extraneous load in the presentation of material?

These questions really drive how I construct the presentation of material in my classroom. Outside of having heard of Sigmund Freud (never mind they don’t actually know what he did), students enter my class having very little knowledge of psychology. Knowing this, I understand their working memory will be ‘loaded’ with new information, so the method of presentation is key. Also, the design of the classroom is also quite important. Distractions are just that; they compete for space in working memory and divert attention from the appropriate information. A classroom environment devoid of such distractions is not taxing on cognitive load. Below are many different aspects of a lesson or the classroom environment that are important to consider when factoring in cognitive load theory:

Arrangement of Desks

While it is very popular in education to offer flexible seating or seating that fosters collaborative grouping, this can actually increase extraneous load. I prefer, especially when introducing a new topic where I know cognitive load will be tested, my seats to be placed in rows; all of the students facing the board. This helps to cut out distractions that can be caused by having to turn around for instruction or distractions that come with students facing each other.

Rows of desks and chairs facing the front of a classroom
This is not the most original classroom layout, but when embarking on a new topic with higher intrinsic load this arrangement helps decrease the extraneous load for my students so they can devote as much of their working memory as possible to the topic at hand. [Image: Public Domain]


There’s nothing inherently wrong with technology, but studies have shown that students remember more when hand-writing their notes and when they avoid the social media distractions of smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Knowing this, I ask my students to only use their devices if it adds to their understanding or assists them with the prescribed assignment/material.

Presentation of Material

When using Google slides or PowerPoint to present information to my students, I make a point to create slides that are quite simple and clean. Slides should only consist of images that directly aid in explaining the material. Fun pictures that make the slide ‘pretty’ are not necessary and can actually hinder information processing. Only the necessary text needs to be presented. Also, using easily understood vocabulary on the slides, outside of necessary vocabulary, helps to increase understanding of material and decrease extraneous load. While presenting, repeating the slide’s text word for word also creates an unnecessary load on the student’s working memory. Try to use words that aid with clarification and present concrete examples to help with assimilation and accommodation of existing schemas.


Student collaboration in the class should only be used as a method to reinforce/review or expand on a topic. Collaborative activities should not be used as a method of initial presentation of class information. During these activities, working memory will be used to process the rules or on many other possible distractions that accompany group work. These extraneous loads only detract from available working memory needed to satisfy the intrinsic and germane loads of information retention.


The home-life of students also introduces many distractions. I encourage my students to try and create an environment with as few distractions as possible; put away their phone, turn off the television and music, etc. Again, removing unnecessary distractors aims to decrease the extraneous load on the student’s working memory. I assign homework that reviews and reinforces information from class and never use homework to introduce new information. Retrieving information for homework that students have already encoded/processed during class requires less germane load and works to strengthen existing schemas. This spaced practice of material has been shown to strengthen retention of material.

The above examples are but a few ways I incorporate cognitive load theory into my classroom. Creating an environment that capitalizes on the known limitations of working memory only benefits the student. I believe that all students, teachers, and parents should have knowledge of cognitive load theory. If students knew why and how their use of social media, television, and music actually worked to decrease the productiveness of studying, maybe they would choose wiser habits for study. Our classrooms would also be more effective, and perhaps students would be less averse to classwork and homework if they knew their time was being used as efficiently as possible for retention of material. 


Blake Harvard is an AP Psychology teacher at James Clemens High School in Madison, Alabama. He has been teaching for about a decade and received his M. Ed. and B. S. degrees from the University of Montevallo. Blake has a particular affinity for all things cognition and psychology; especially when those areas are also paired with education and learning. He started his blog The Effortful Educator to highlight research being done on learning, memory, and cognition and their connections to the classroom.

Additional Resources

A helpful resource that expands on cognitive load theory and its application in the classroom is Cognitive Load Theory: Research that Teachers Really Need to Understand by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation.