What is cognitive load?

As far as I can tell, working memory (WM), the part of our brain that consciously processes information, dominates everything we do in terms of learning. Working memory can only hold 4-5 bits of information at one time and information in working memory lasts only around ten seconds.

The fact that our working memories have a small capacity and a short duration is worthy of headline news. It’s what we’re up against as humans and as learning experience designers.

Interactions Between WM and LTM

Unlike working memory, long-term memory appears to have an unlimited capacity. Information in long-term memory (LTM) is stored in schemas, which are mental structures we use to organize and structure knowledge. Schemas incorporate multiple elements of information into a single element with a specific function.

The interaction goes both ways. We construct new schemas in working memory so they can be integrated into existing knowledge in long-term memory. And existing knowledge in LTM is brought into working memory to help us understand the world. Otherwise, everything would be new all the time!

WM is Vulnerable to Overload

Sometimes learning involves great effort—even suffering (am I a drama queen?). That’s because working memory is quite vulnerable to overload, which occurs as we study increasingly complex subjects and perform increasingly complex tasks. As learning experience designers, we have to watch out for cognitive load, which refers to the total amount of mental activity imposed on working memory in any one instant.

What causes too much demand on working memory? One cause comes from an abundance of novel information. More information than the person can process. But high cognitive load is also strongly influenced by the number of elements in working memory that interact with each other. Often, complex learning is based on interacting elements that must be processed simultaneously. For example, learning to drive involves understanding how several elements simultaneously interact, such as considering the pressure required to brake, the amount to turn the steering wheel and making adjustments for weather conditions and traffic.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Not all cognitive load is bad. But a problem arises when the load exceeds the capacity of the person processing it. So for example, what overloads the mind of the novice may not overload the mind of the expert. If the load is imposed by constructing new schemas and automating them, it will have positive effects on learning. This is germane cognitive load.

If the load is imposed by the nature of what is to be learned, including the number of information elements and their interactivity, it is known as intrinsic cognitive load. Sometimes we can change the nature of the learning task, but not that often. People need to learn what they need to learn.

However, if the load is generated by the manner in which information is presented to learners, it is under the control of those who design learning experiences. Known as extraneous cognitive load, it is imposed by mental activities that can have a negative effect on learning if not designed appropriately. Extraneous load can interfere with the construction or automation of schemas.

What We Can Do

There are two things instructional designers can focus on to free working memory capacity: helping learners construct schemas and helping them automate schemas. Effective instructional design can help people combine elements of lower level schemas into higher-level schemas. This is how someone achieves expertise. When multiple elements of information are chunked as single elements, there is more working memory capacity available for solving problems and processing information.

In addition, schemas can get automated if they are repeatedly and successfully applied. Automated schemas directly steer behavior and are not consciously processed in working memory. They free working memory capacity for other activities. Some types of schemas that become automated are reading and driving a car.

As learners becomes increasingly familiar with content and skills, schemas change so that the information or task can be handled more efficiently by working memory. Our job is to facilitate this change in schemas, which ultimately, is what learning is all about.

This article was taken from a presentation on cognitive load that I gave at the Learning Solutions Conference in Orlando, FL.

You may also want to read:
20 Facts About Working Memory
Long-term Memory: A User’s Guide
Novice Versus Expert Design Strategies
The Novice Brain

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  1. Jane McGinnis says

    I am laughing as I write this comment. I started to thank you for your excellent article and the way it presented such a clear model of the thousands of little things that have to happen as we move from novice to expert – and realized your entire article was a schema of its own – a clear capsule that I can use today as I work. Thanks, Connie, for another excellent viewpoint.

  2. Jeremy Alger says

    Wow. Great article. I haven’t thought that much about how the memory effects learning since my first year of university over 10 years ago. Thanks for the stimulating read.

  3. Munira Bangee says

    Hi Connie
    I really appreciate the simplicity in which you have shown such complicated information. As instructional designers this information is very important and relevant to the way we design our instruction. Many times the information on our courses maybe very new to the students, and our role is to find a way of connecting this information to preexisting schemata or find ways to organize this information so that students can understand it.

    For this I really like to use mind mapping as this not only helps students to link the different parts of the information, but also helps with the organization of it. The mind map also mimics the way our brain organizes information and supports the schema theory.

    Mind mapping also helps with WM overload and helps students to later recall this information as the mind map really helps visual learners. I also find that when I am going to introduce a new topic, getting students to mind map on what they already know helps to put them at ease and reduces some of the anxiety related to learning new material. This then helps them to tap into any existing schemata and use that as a support structure for the new information.

  4. Sharifa says

    Hi Connie, I used your website for an assignment where I identified useful instructional design websites. This week for our class we are looking at neuroscience and information processing. One of the major topics on our discussion board is people not being able to retain content and having to reread material several times in order to be able to retrieve it. One of the suggestions from our text was to use meta cognition. I think that at times even with years of experience a lot of us are not experts in the field of instructional design. This causes us to experience overload when reading our text as sometimes we have nothing to reference and as you noted above I think this falls into the intrinsic cognitive load category.

  5. Brad Weilbrenner says

    Instructional designers need to take into account the working memory when developing content for the learner. The first step in the ADDIE process is to complete an assessment. According to Dick, Carey, and Carey, a learner analysis must be completed to determine the target population’s prior knowledge and behaviors as well as their motivation and abilities (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2005). This is the same concept that is used by presenters; they want to know their audience. Because the working memory can only handle a small amount of information, between 5 and 9 items, at any time and the length of time to hold this information is short, it is important that strategies are in place to allow the information to move from the working memory to the long-term memory as efficiently as possible. One of these strategies is referred to as chunking or associating the information into larger chunks the learner can relate to (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009). By chunking the information it will allow the learner to associate the information to existing schemas moving the information into the long-term memory more efficiently and making recall easier.

    To build upon and increase existing schemas or created new schemas the instructional designer should use the information acquired in the assessment phase to determine the prior knowledge and behaviors and design instruction that is slightly above the learner’s cognition or skill level (Cole, John-Steiner, Scribner, & Souberman, 1978). Using Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, the learner will be able to expand on an existing schema, strengthening it, instead of attempting to create a new and immature schema. For example, children learn addition and subtraction before they learn multiplication and division. It is easier to teach a child that 5×5=25 when you can show them that 5×5= 5+5+5+5+5= 25. If they do not know addition it will be difficult understand the concept of multiplication. The design of any education or instruction should be planned to deliver a meaningful learning experience by taking into account the way individuals process information they receive through all of there senses.

    Thank you for a great article,



    Cole, M., John-Steiner, V., Scribner, S., & Souberman, E. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press

    Dick, W., Carey, L., & Carey, J. (2005). The systematic design of instruction (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson

    Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York: Pearson.

  6. Brad Weilbrenner says


    Thanks for allowing me to comment to your blog for this weeks assignment. I hope to be a frequent commenter on your blog and I promise that I will be less formal less formal and use a more conversational tone.



  7. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Brad,
    It’s nice to have your comments on the site. I understand you were fulfilling an assignment and it’s no problem. I’m sorry for teasing you (it’s a bad habit). I look forward to interacting with you here. I wish you well in your schooling.


  8. Scholar says

    I am sorry if I missed where you gave credit for the research on CL. Did you give credit where credit is due? (John Sweller, Paul Ayres, Slava Kalyuga, and others). Or were you trying to pass this article off as you original work?

    Also, you make no mention of anything practical a teacher can do to implement strategies that manage CL. This comes in later articles and is germane to the proper application of the theory.

  9. Connie Malamed says

    This is not my original work. I’m not a researcher. Information about cognitive load is pretty much in the public domain so I don’t think there’s a need to list all the people who have researched it. I’m happy you did though! Thank you.

    Yes, you’ll have to read those other articles linked below for strategies. I like to focus on one thing at a time and go deep. But really, you may not find many strategies for teachers. The site is geared for instructional designers, though I’m thrilled when educators/teachers read the articles too and welcome their input. Thanks for your comment.


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