Cognitive Load Theory


Mental Load


Optimizing learning by managing the structure and flow of information

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … informational mass
  • 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. Associated constructs and discourses include:
  • Redundancy Effect (John Sweller, 1990s) – when learning is impaired because the learner is confronted with the same information in either multiple formats or in varying levels of detail
The metaphor of “load” is invoked by multiple discourses on learning and everyday functioning, but it is more often encountered in references to “overload” – almost all of which are based on the premise that individuals have limited capacities for processing information:
  • Overload – exceeding one’s capacity to deal effectively with the task at hand. Sources/type of Overload in the psychological literature include:
    • Attention Overload – a situation in which one is compelled to attend to multiple sources of information, potentially making it impossible to attend sufficiently to any
    • Cognitive Overload (Mental Overload) – a mental state in which the demands on one’s thinking exceed one’s immediate coping abilities
    • Communication Overload – a condition in which one is presented with more information that one can effectively accommodate or use
    • Information Overload – a mental state, typically marked by anxiety or poor decision making, that is triggered by amounts, intensities, or varieties of information that exceed one’s immediate processing capacities
    • Sensory Overload – a mental state of being overwhelmed by stimuli, typically marked by an inability to notice, process, or respond adequately or appropriately
    • Stimulus Overload – a mental condition triggered by too many and/or too varied stimuli, typically manifest as agitation, stress, and/or frantic efforts to reduce stimulation
  • Underload (Cognitive Underload; Mental Underload) – the prompting of a sort of distress that manifests as boredom, frustration, or fatigue, owing to task that lacks appropriate challenge
Associated discourses and constructs include:
  • Environmental Load Theory – the suggestion that the central nervous system will ignore inputs when stimulations exceed a critical threshold
  • Learning Shock (Dorothy Griffiths, Diana Winstanley, 2010s) – the negative emotions (e.g., confusion, anxiety, frustration) that may be triggered when experiencing excessive, unfamiliar, ambiguous, and/or unpredictable events in an educational context
  • Seductive Details (Fictitious Inducements to Attention) (John Dewey, 1910s) – irrelevant adornments (e.g., contextualization, illustrations, animations, sound) that are added to lessons and learning tasks in efforts to make them more engaging. While sometimes motivating to learners, Seductive Details have been associated with poorer retention, diminished transfer, and reduced attentiveness.


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.


  • Attention Overload
  • Cognitive Overload (Mental Overload)
  • Communication Overload
  • Environmental Load Theory
  • Information Overload
  • Learning Shock
  • Overload
  • Redundancy Effect
  • Seductive Details (Fictitious Inducements to Attention)
  • Sensory Overload
  • Stimulus Overload
  • Underload (Cognitive Underload; Mental Underload)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Cognitive Load Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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