Cognitive Load Theory


Optimizing learning by managing the structure and flow of information

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … information
  • Knowing is … using information
  • Learner is … an information processor (individual)
  • Learning is … inputting (and associated computer-based notions, such as processing, storing, and retrieving)
  • Teaching is … transmission (of information)




Cognitive Load Theory begins by asserting that teaching can be made more effective by attending to the role and limits of working memory. Aligned with Information Processing Theory, this discourse assumes that information must be processed by working memory before it can be stored in long-term memory. Three types of cognitive load are identified: intrinsic (immutable; some concepts are more complicated than others), germane (manipulatable; processing and storage demands), and extraneous (manageable; instructional materials and other situational factors can distract). Lesson designers are advised to attend in particular to germane cognitive load.


Cognitive Load Theory is founded on a thoroughly demonstrated feature of human memory, namely that working memory is very limited and easily distracted. Unfortunately, the theory is locked into a knowledge-as-information metaphor and, as a result, frames all its advice in terms of the transfer of information rather than the noticing of difference, the quest for patterns, and the desire for coherence (cf. Variation Theory, Radical Constructivism).

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

John Sweller

Status as a Theory of Learning

Cognitive Load Theory is not a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Cognitive Load Theory is a theory of teaching – or, more precisely, advice on lesson design.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Cognitive Load Theory is founded on a sound and well-researched principle of cognition. While proponents claim a substantial empirical basis to the theory, close examination of studies and evidence reveals that most researchers are doing little more than confirming that working memory is limited, and teaching effectiveness is improved when educators take that detail into account.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2019). “Cognitive Load Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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