How to use

If you are collaborating in a critical friends group or working on Continuing your Professional Development, Cognitive Load Theory is a good place to start. Use the adjacent checklist to inspect your instructional materials for improvements.

Below are strategies and ideas for your consideration and for discussion in small groups.

Worked Examples + self-explanation

In this example, The students are asked to explore an online simulation (goal free effect) followed by 6 worked example-problem pairs containing self-explanation prompts. Worked problems reduce cognitive load while students are in the acquisition phase.

Worked Examples - Gears
Worked Examples Atoms

Bar Models

Bar models reduce cognitive load by making algebraic calculations visible and geometric which is useful for students with underdeveloped algebra skills and when there may be too many interacting elements (i.e. high intrinsic load).

(The examples here comes from Ian Taylor)


Students are asked to graph the life expectancy of animals. A donkey has a life expectance of 15 years. The following exchange between a student and teacher can be heard:

  • student: but sir/miss there is no 15.

  • teacher: which numbers will it be between?

  • student: oh, between the 10 and 20

  • teacher: so how many squares up from the 10?

  • student: 5

  • teacher: (face palm) no.

Bar model to the rescue

By drawing a bar (that spans between 10 and 20) and dividing it up into 5 equal pieces, students may more easily deduce that each smaller piece is worth 2 units (2x5=10). Once this is discovered, students can independently find the location of 15 on this graph.

Bar models are also useful when there the are different scales on the x and y axes and even when using decimals.


Q: How much alcohol is left in the blood after 24 minutes?

The x axis is familiar but the y axis can be perplexing. a quick bar diagram will help.

Here are more examples of bar models in science class by Ben Rogers.


Integrated instructions

Labs are busy places. There are lots of "interacting elements" and often students get partnered making chatting with a friend, rather than listening to the instructions, tempting. This is why, for novice students learning both how to behave in the lab and how to do them well, it is important to reduce extraneous load as much as possible.

Here is an example, generously given to us by Andy Coté at RHS. It's a lab for early in grade 7.

A teacher has a lot to think about here:

  • How many interacting elements are there? Should I segment the task?

  • Should I pre-teach any of the material to students before we do the lab so they can focus on what matters?

  • Is there an online PhET simulator (or other sim) that I can use with the class before the lab for the "goal free effect?"

One thing that is almost obvious is that reading a lot of new material/concepts means our students' working memory can get overwhelmed.

To avoid this consider giving them "integrated instructions" as seen here.

Here, the same instructions/procedures are given, but in a manner that lowers cognitive load for beginners. Over time, we fade this scaffold away and introduce more and more sophisticated ways of doing labs - could this be a bridge between novice and expert?

See this link for more.

Optimizing intrinsic load with cold calling and whole-class participation

Cold calling is a questioning technique that encourages more students to think and increases the engagement of the class.

If students are asked many (rapid fire) questions throughout the class and know that they can be asked at anytime for an answer, they will tend to pay more attention. An important caveat is that teachers need to be flexible in the face of their students' answers - do not move on in the lesson if you are not getting at least 80% of the class following and answering correctly.

The image on the right shows why cold calling increases participation of the class and causes more students to think.

This can also be modified by asking questions and randomly choosing a student by drawing a popsicle stick with their names written on them. If you don't want to write their names (because that would be a lot of popsicle sticks) you can have one set with the numbers 1 through 35 and reuse that for each class.

Other ways of getting whole-class participation is with coloured cards and "hinge-point-questions". See the adjacent video. Here we see a check for prior knowledge. Everyone in the class must answer (by voting with coloured cards). A nice advantage to this technique is that we can ask students to defend their thinking and launch into productive classroom talk:

  • Some students put up blue others put up red

  • Teacher: "Sam, I see you put up red. Tell me why."

  • Sam explains.

  • Teacher: "Bill, I see you put up blue, tell me why."

  • Bill explains.

  • Teacher: "Sam, was Bill able to change your mind with his thinking? Explain."

AC RHS example of hinge point question.mp4

Dual Coding

Dual coding, or more precisely dual modality, refers to using images combined with written or spoken words (avoiding redundancy and split-attention).

Watch Adam Boxer explain how he uses dual coding and "live drawing" in his classes.

Optimizing intrinsic load by Modeling good and poor answers

This is similar to worked examples but works best for declarative knowledge rather than procedural knowledge.