Cognitive Load Theory: The Key to Smarter Instructional Design

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What is cognitive load theory (CLT)?

Attributable to John Sweller who developed this theory after thoroughly studying problem solving, CLT provides guidelines for improving learning and retention by focusing on the memory capacity of human beings. While solving problems or trying to ‘learn’ new information, the brain copes up in certain ways, which have been studied and theorized by Sweller.

‘Cognitive’ means mental and ‘load’ means burden, so this theory basically studies the mental load that the human brain faces when learning happens. Learners can remember information only if they can organize all that information into ‘schemas’ or category-based relationships.

Cognitive Load Theory The Key to Smarter Instructional Design

For example, suppose we tell you five words- complexity, television, snow, equation and circumstances. If someone were to ask you all the words a couple of days later, chances are you’d forget one or more of them. If, however you construct a sentence using these words, you’ll be able to remember all of them.  It may be a nonsensical sentence like’the snowcircumstances added to the complexity of the equation on television but it assists the brain in connecting the words and allowing it to visualize the seemingly random information. This is what a schema does: it helps in shedding some of the cognitive load.

Cognitive load is of three types:

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This is the load which is inherently a part of learning, because learning by default places some form of load on the brain. Some tasks are more intrinsically more difficult than others: for an English medium schooled child, solving a quadratic mathematical equation will place a higher intrinsic load than reading a simple English short story. Instructional designers generally do not have control on this type of mental load.

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Extraneous load is of particular concern to instructional designers, because it arises out of the way information is presented to learners.  Suppose you’re trying to explain what a cockpit looks like to a trainee pilot by using audio, it creates a lot of extraneous load on his mind as compared to if you simply show him an image of a cockpit.  The extraneous load further decreases if the image is 3D as the trainee can now have a complete picture of how exactly a cockpit looks like. Similarly, explaining how a customer value chain works may be more effective if shown through a flowchart or a simple video that uses stick figures (instead of actual human figures) to show the sequential process. Thus, extraneous load is the unwanted, unnecessary load that is created as a result of poor instructional design.


Ironic as it may sound, germane load is actually a desirable one. This gets created because learners allocate their mental resources to organize the information presented into schemas, like we placed germane load on our brains when we constructed the nonsensical sentence to remember the five words we mentioned in the example earlier. Again, instructional designers can manipulate germane load by grouping course modules and chapters in such a manner or sequence that it places more germane load on learners’ minds and they involuntarily dedicate more mental resources to constructing relationships among all the information presented to them.

So to summarize, the key to smarter instructional design lies in reducing the amount of extraneous load by stepping into the shoes of learners and asking yourself the question: “If I were to learn the concept that I wish to teach, what would be the way in which I could have understood it the most?” As far as germane load is concerned, instructional designers must present learning materials in such a way that it makes it possible for learners to easily group them into schemas.

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