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Cognitive Load Theory

Knowledge about our memory functions has given rise to a theory of learning called Cognitive Load Theory. This theory is built on a number of fundamental theses, and on this basis it is possible to increase the efficiency of the learning process by sidestepping the limitations of the working memory in a number of ways.

The fundamental theses of this theory are as follows.

  • There is a fundamental limitation to the working memory, which acts as a bottleneck in the learning process.
  • If the capacity of the working memory is exceeded, a part of or all the information will be lost.
  • In learning situations, the cognitive load must be limited for the learning process to run effectively.
  • All information must pass through the working memory and be processed consciously before it reaches the long-term memory.

In order to bypass this limitation and thus to increase the efficiency of the learning process it is possible to reduce the load on the working memory, for example by:

  • using different aids (pens, paper, computers)
  • dividing the information into smaller units (chunking)
  • combining sounds and images, as these are processed separately. However, in this case it is very important to ensure that the sounds and images complement each other so that they do not cause split attention

Which stages and phases do we pass though when acquiring new knowledge?

  • The cognitive stage—learning. We learn how to perform a new action, such as shifting gears when driving a car.
  • The associative stage—training. We practice and become better at carrying out the action; our tables become more and more comprehensive.
  • The autonomous stage—automation. We have reached a stage in which we carry out the action more or less unconsciously.

In this case, expertise means that a person has built up an extensive table with regard to a particular area and can carry out certain actions with a high degree of automation. Novices require a much higher level of conscious attention in all phases of the process, which means that novices will act more slowly and be more prone to making mistakes.

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