Cognitive load theory will come up a lot on this blog, so I thought a primer would be useful. Here are some of its highlights:

  • Your knowledge is in your long-term memory, which, as far as we know, has unlimited capacity.
  • When you are learning something, you take in information through your senses and process it with your working memory. A concepts you successfully learn becomes a schema you store in your long-term memory.
  • Your working memory is weak—it can store only four or five items at once and only for a few seconds.
  • Cognitive load is the mental effort that the learning task demands. There are three types:
  1. intrinsic load relates to the difficulty of the material itself,
  2. extraneous load is unproductive mental effort and caused by poor instructional design,
  3. germane load is productive mental effort learners use to create schemata.
  • If the learning task demands more mental effort than the capacity of your working memory (which is pathetic, remember), you don’t learn shit.

Cognitive load theory came out of the instructional design field, and researchers have found ways to decrease the extraneous load of learning materials, using design principles, so that they’re easier to absorb. They’ve also suggested that chunking content and giving learners more time before introducing new material can be an effective way of reducing intrinsic load.

(Reference: Plass, Jan L., Roxana Moreno, and Roland Brünken. Cognitive Load Theory. Cambridge University Press, 2010.)

Cognitive load theory was developed to describe students in educational settings, but its model of mental burden and working memory is incredibly useful in other contexts. I’ll be using it when I talk about innovation, communication, policy, and economics.