The Theory


To read the theory itself as well as additional related articles, click here.

Cognitive Load Theory is based in cognitive science and rests upon five pillars. These make up what Oliver Lovell cleverly calls the "A, B, C (D, E!)" of CLT.

  • Architecture

      • We think using a combination of information from the environment (unlimited), long-term memory (unlimited) and our working memory (limited). We can overcome our limited working memories by chunking information, storing it in long-term memory and automatizing it.

  • Biology

      • The distinction between biologically primary knowledge (that which is easily and naturally acquired) and biologically secondary knowledge (that which is acquired with difficulty) is important in that it implies, what is taught in schools ought to be the latter.

  • Categorization

      • Cognitive load can be categorized as either intrinsic or extraneous. Intrinsic load refers to the inherent difficulty of the task itself while extraneous load refers to the additional complication caused by the environment. The key idea of CLT is to minimize extraneous load and optimize intrinsic load.

  • Domains

      • Skills are domain general or domain specific. Domain general skills are biologically primary (one cannot teach general creativity or general problem solving). Instead, we gain expertise in specific domains (i.e. creative-writer, creative-musician, etc.) and this expertise is gained by increasing our domain specific knowledge.

  • Element interactivity

      • Whether a learner finds the material to be learned hard or easy depends on their prior knowledge as well as the number of elements in a given task and the amount of interactivity between these elements. We manipulate the intrinsic interacting elements with good curricular sequencing and we minimize extraneous interacting elements with good instructional design.

Summary of Oliver Lovell's work in Cognitive Load Theory in Action

Bar model Analogy for working memory:

This bar model represents one's total working memory capacity. Below is how it might be divided during a task.

The task itself is taking up the blue portion labeled "intrinsic load" but due to poor instructional design, a lot of working memory that can be used to think about the problem more deeply is occupied by "extraneous load" seen as the red bar.

Ideally, a student invests as much of their working memory to the task (and therefore to deeper more effective learning). The following diagram shows an optimized scenario (realistically, there will always be some extraneous load - represented here by the smaller red bar).

Two problems may arise; the task is too easy and therefore students are not making the most use of their working memories or the task is too cognitively demanding (i.e. the sum of the intrinsic load and extraneous load is more than working memory's capacity) causing the working memory to be overloaded and confusion. The latter is more often the case and is represented here.

The following two pages give recommendations/strategies for:

  1. optimizing intrinsic load

  2. reducing extraneous load