Optimizing Intrinsic Load

Oliver Lovell on Tom Sherrington's Podcast about CLT


Delivering a portion of the content before the main lesson, and reinforcing it through revision over time, can reduce the intrinsic load experienced by students when they attempt the final, complete task.

  • Vocabulary

    • Using Alex Quigley's method "SEEC" (selection, explanation, exploration and consolidation):

          • select words that you believe students will be unlikely to know.

          • explain the definition and practice pronouncing it. Use it in examples. Have students come up with their own examples that they share with the class.

          • (optional step) explore the word; etymology, synonym and antonyms, creating mnemonics or create an image to associate with the word.

          • consolidate the new words by having regular and systematic prompting of students to use the word in subsequent tasks.

  • Lab equipment

        • Before doing an experiment or using the lab that requires the use of new equipment or materials, pre-teach how to use it.

  • Important people

        • If a scientist's name is important, relevant information (e.g. Dalton's model), pre-teach these people and their influence on science.

  • Computer skills

        • Before using ed-tech such as a digital simulation, pre-teach how the simulation works. Don't dive right into the science, spend some time learning what each slider or button does.

  • Events in a timeline

        • If the chronological order of events matter (e.g. discover of the atom) pre-teach a timeline.

sequencing and COMBINATIONS

Part-whole is the building of the constituent skills/knowledges before assembling it all together. Whole-part requires providing a general overview first followed by more focused practice on individual segments.

  • Part-whole

      • Chain forwards

          • An example of forward chaining is writing a lab report (which can consist of the following parts: Introduction, Hypothesis, Method, Results, Discussion, Conclusion). The teacher could have students practice each part progressively starting with the introduction, then in the next demo or experiment the hypothesis, etc. Once students are comfortable with each part in isolation, they can write an entire one on their own.

      • Chain backwards

          • In this strategy students start with the end in mind and are supported incrementally in learning the necessary prior skills/knowledges. For example, in an engineering design project, tell the students what the outcome should be/look like and walk them backwards through the process, practicing the necessary earlier skills.

      • Snowball

          • This a variation of the forward/backward chaining strategy. In each new activity, students practice the new segment as well as all the previous ones (e.g. week1: introduction, week 2: introduction and hypothesis, week 3: introduction, hypothesis and method, etc.)

          • If snowballing is too demanding, one can semi-snowball by keeping the number of tasks a student works on to a maximum of, say, 3 tasks (e.g. week 3: introduction, hypothesis and method, week 4: hypothesis, method and results, etc.)

  • Whole-part

      • Simplify conditions

          • A presentation (think science fair) requires the combination of multiple component skills such as gestures, intonation, pacing eye-contact, volume of voice, etc. It makes little sense to practice each of these in isolation (imagine asking a student to stand at the front of the class and only do eye-contact for 5 minutes). In this strategy, students practice all the skills simultaneously but the conditions are simplified (e.g. practice presenting something students are very familiar with or present to a smaller, less intimidating audience).

      • Manipulate the emphasis

          • Have students practice all the skills simultaneously but emphasizes that you are only focusing on a single aspect (e.g. students will present their project but you will only judge them for their ability to write a good hypothesis).


Intrinsic cognitive load can be reduced by breaking up a task into smaller chunks. For complex skills, student practice of a segmented skill often looks very different from the final performance.

-Oliver Lovell
  • Skills/knowledge hierarchy

    • A good place to start when designing a lesson is to lay out all the necessary building blocks of knowledge and skill (call this atomization), then organize these atomized ideas in a hierarchy. Then design the lessons with scaffolds to walk students through the hierarchy.

  • Cut an element

    • In some cases identifying the interacting elements may be easy. For example, when doing a lab, students may need to think of a hypothesis then test it by finding the mass of two chemicals before then combining them to observe the temperature of the reaction. To reduce the element interactivity, the teacher may provide the hypothesis the pre-massed chemicals leaving the students to only focus on measuring the temperature.

Introduce variation

Unlike the other strategies, introducing variation actually increases cognitive load. This can be desirable if students have spare capacity in their working memory. It can also lead to deeper learning and increased transfer of skills/knowledge but, this can slow down the learning process (i.e. this is good in the long run but in the immediate, may look like students are struggling).

  • Interleaving

      • Having students work on a block of work, always dealing with the same idea "X", means students don't need to think as hard. They know the answer to the question or activity will somehow have to do with "X". Reinvesting concepts or skills from other units regularly not only makes learning science a more connected field of study (not random/useless isolated facts) but also students are forced to think harder to make sense of the task or question.

The expertise-reversal effect

Learners need different kinds of support depending on their level of expertise. The fact that *worked examples* is a better learning strategy for novices and *problem solving* is better for experts is an example of the expertise-reversal effect.

(*misconceptions alert*)