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Cognitive load theory

Discussing Cognitive Load Theory
Students working in a classroom
© University of East Anglia

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) was developed by John Sweller in the 1980s. However, in order to understand CLT, we must first understand how a person learns.

Information from our senses is temporarily stored in our short-term memory, which has a limited capacity. In order for something to be considered ‘learned’, it has to be moved from our short-term into our long-term memory, which is considered to have almost infinite storage capacity (Cowan, 2008). This process involves an aspect of the short-term memory referred to as our working memory. This is where we organise and manipulate information, making links to prior knowledge in order to transfer the information into our long-term memories. As Daniel Willingham (2009) points out, “Memory is the residue of thought”. Inside our long-term memories, new information is organised and linked to our existing knowledge and understanding in what’s known as schema.

CLT is based upon the idea that as our working memories has very limited capacity, it is easily overloaded by irrelevant information. This overload reduces the chances that the information will be transferred to long-term memory.

The cognitive load of any task is made up of three elements:

  1. Intrinsic Load – The inherent difficulty of the task itself. This is directly linked to the related prior knowledge (schema) a person can draw upon to help them understand the new information or solve the problem presented.

  2. Extraneous Load – This can be directly influenced by the teacher and includes aspects such as how new information is presented, explained and modelled, as well as the impact of other factors which can distract the student, such as the classroom environment.

  3. Germane Load – This is the mental effort a students can exert to process information in order to create new schema or link new knowledge to existing schema.

As a teacher, you want to aim to reduce the intrinsic and extraneous load of a learning task in order to maximise the germane load.

You can learn more about the background to CLT in this article and access Sweller’s (1988) publication here. In addition, this article by Greg Ashman presents a good overview of the CLT and provides a range of links to research for those who wish to learn more about it.


Cowan, N (2008) What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in Brain Research, 169, 323–338.

Willingham, D.T. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? : A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Sweller, J. (1988) ‘Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning’. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257-285.

© University of East Anglia
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