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Cognitive Load: A Fundamental Key to Student Learning

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Sweller (1988) introduced the concept of cognitive load approximately 30 years ago, and it continues to be researched and expanded on today. Cognitive load is significant in understanding the limitations of human learning. A solid understanding of this concept will help you to know how best to present information to students, what types of roadblocks students face with respect to learning, and even as a guide to knowing when to lecture compared to when to have students work in small groups. Overall, cognitive load is one of the foundational concepts in understanding all of human learning. Yet, the term is relatively unknown to most higher education faculty members.

Cognitive load is the amount of information being processed at any given moment. The cognitive psychology work in the area of human learning related to cognitive load can be traced to George Miller’s (1950) research on the limitations of short-term memory. Miller noted that humans can hold only a small amount of information in their short-term memory at any given time. Once we exceed that capacity, either new information cannot be learned, or upon learning something new, another bit of information in short-term memory is immediately lost.

With respect to instructional strategies, cognitive load is important as it can be used to explain when students are able to process new information and when they are not.

It also helps us to better understand why concepts seem too obvious and easy to an expert while at the same time, too challenging to a student. Understanding cognitive load is helpful for many common frustrations we have all faced as faculty members, such as when you ask students in class a question that you feel is very easy and they all stare at you as if you are speaking a foreign language. To better understand the challenges of learning, let’s begin with a basic foundation of cognitive load.

Cognitive load theory includes three types of load: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane (Sweller, Van Merrienboer, & Paas, 1998). Intrinsic cognitive load is the challenge that naturally occurs whenever you are learning a new task. Reading a physics textbook with a great deal of new terminology takes much more cognitive effort than reading a novel written at a level intended for children. Learning in a language that is not a native language is simply more complicated than reading in a native language. This explains why learning challenging material is physically exhausting.

Students will talk at times about a “good run” or an “intense workout at the gym,” but rarely say, “I just put in a solid workout at the library and my brain is tired.” Overall, there is not really anything to be done about intrinsic load aside from acknowledging that learning new and challenging information is more effortful than learning information at a lower cognitive level. We can, however, directly impact both of the other two types of cognitive load: extraneous and germane.

Extraneous cognitive load pertains to the difficulty of processing information due to factors that are extraneous to the target learning. Another way to think of extraneous load is a distraction from intended learning. A few examples of extraneous load include people carrying on a conversation while you are reading, working in a room that is uncomfortably hot or cold, and listening to disorganized material that contains irrelevant information. Of course, texting a friend while in class is a common type of extraneous load. As faculty members, we often inadvertently create extraneous load. If I include an image of a beautiful relaxing beach scene, in a presentation slide about learning as a means of emphasizing individuals learn better when relaxed rather than in a state of stress, I have also created extraneous load in terms of thoughts of the last time the student was at a beach, or an upcoming spring break trip. Extraneous load may also creep into the class when, as the instructor, I go on a tangent, or explain some ancillary aspect of the material that I find interesting. For example, while describing classical conditioning in an introductory psychology class the instructor may add a bit of additional interesting information, such as the first time the concept was introduced it was presented at an international conference just before lunch. As the meeting was running, only a few people paid attention to the concept being presented. In this example, the additional information within the story, unless it directly assisted in the learning process, is extraneous cognitive load. Images, stories, and information meant to solidify learning are best used when that which is presented is closely related to the material to be learned. When it is not, it becomes extraneous load and subsequently makes learning more difficult for the student.

The final type of load is germane cognitive load. Germane load refers to the energy devoted to the specific process of learning new information. The two most important aspects of this type of load are automaticity and schema activation. Automaticity is the extent to which something is “automatic,” or done with little cognitive effort. When you complete either a behavioral task or a mental task repeatedly, those neuron pathways allow for the information to be processed more and more easily. It is a way for our brains to be extremely efficient. Initally, the act of driving is extremely complicated but becomes much easier after driving for a while. Across time you might not even think about driving; it becomes almost automatic. Recalling information such as “who was the first president of…,” can bring up information before the question is even completed. An extremely important aspect of becoming a professional is to increase the automaticity of the foundational aspects of that profession. Learners can reduce this type of cognitive load through practice.

The other aspect of germane load is activation of schemas. Schemas are like scripts for a complex set of behaviors or concepts.

You have schemas for almost every aspect of your life, and it helps you to process a lot of information, including new information, quickly.

For example, you have a schema for fast food restaurants. If I mention that I am going to a fast-food restaurant for lunch and ask if you want anything, you immediately have a sense for the general type of food available and the approximate costs. In returning from the fast-food entity, if I say I got a T-bone steak and garlic mashed potatoes, you would become confused, as that does not fit the schema for fast food. Faculty attempt to activate a relevant schema to make the new information easy to process for the learner. For example, we often say, “this new information is kind of like….” This is done to activate a scheme and reduce germane load.

It is important to note that germane load and extraneous load are individual-specific, yet we do see some commonalities. Most individuals find others talking in the library very distracting (increased extraneous load), although some can tune them out the conversation (no increased extraneous load). When you use an example in class that resonates with some learners (decreased germane load), keep in mind it might make little or no sense to others (increased extraneous load). For example, if I say apply pressure with your foot that is the same as you might push on a gas pedal when merging into traffic, those who have never driven a car will be more confused than if you had not used that example.

This quick introduction to cognitive load is meant simply to introduce the term to those who are not familiar with the concept. It is a deep and meaningful concept that will require a bit of additional reading. A quick search for “cognitive load” will provide many options to come to understand the foundational concepts. Overall, cognitive load has broad and significant implications for learning in higher education. The more you read about cognitive load, the easier it will be to see how it impacts almost every aspect of your teaching.


What are ways that you could talk to students about intrinsic load to help them better understand that deep learning can be exhausting?

List three ways that you have likely contributed extraneous load for students in your courses. How changes might you make to reduce extraneous cognitive load?

How might you help students to understand the germane aspects of learning better?

What are the implications of having students in your course with vastly different lived experiences?

References and Additional Readings:

Paas, F., et al, (2003) Cognitive Load Measurement as a Means to Advance Cognitive Load Theory, Educational Psychologist, 38:1, 63-71.

Schmeck, A., et al. (2015). Instructional Science 43: 93-114.

Sweller, J. (June 1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science. 12 (2): 257–285.

Sweller, J.; Van Merriënboer, J. & Paas, F. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review. 10 (3): 251–296.

Young, J.Q., Van Merrienboer, J., Durning, S. & Ten Cate, O. (2014). Cognitive Load Theory: Implications for medical education: AMEE Guide No. 86, Medical Teacher, 36:5, 371-384.

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