Cognitive Load Theory

This post complements this earlier one on The Lens of Cognitive Load Theory

While technology acceptance is a theory that can explain and predict the decision to use a technology, cognitive load theory (Sweller, Ayres, & Kalyuga, 2011) (CLT) predicts and explains technology use once it has been adopted. CLT is based on the assumption that using information (and the information technologies used to communicate it) requires attention, perception, thought, and memory, thus it is a cognitive activity. Further, human cognition is a zero-sum quantity; each individual has a limited quantity of cognition available at any moment, and that cognition used for one purpose is not available for another purpose.

Theorists identify three types of cognitive load that characterize an information task:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load is that which is necessary to understand the task and to use the information necessary to accomplish the task.
  • Germane cognitive load is that which is available for the learner to think about, strategize about, and come to deeper understanding of the ideas and information in the task. Learning only occurs when germane cognitive load is available.
  • Extraneous cognitive load is that which is wasted by the learners managing bad design or poor organization of information or information technology tools. Using unfamiliar tools can also increase extraneous cognitive load.

When designing the information tasks and the information technology platforms that are used for teaching and learning, efficacious IT managers seek to minimize extraneous cognitive load and maximize germane cognitive load. It is reasoned that changing the intrinsic cognitive load is accomplished only by changing the task; therefore, reducing the extraneous cognitive load is the only method of increasing the cognitive load for germane purposes.

Consider the example of graphing calculators. Using this technology, one can minimize the extraneous cognitive load of drawing the graph of a sophisticated function, so more cognition can be dedicated to understanding the mathematics. When first encountering a graphing calculator (or when encountering an unfamiliar model), determining how to use the device increases extraneous cognitive load of graphing. This explains the practice of introducing such technology with simple and familiar examples. Once the technology and its operation along with the manner in which it displays information becomes familiar, the extraneous cognitive load of using it decreases, so the advantage of using it for sophisticated mathematics is realized.

As with all theory, CLT predicts and explains what may be observed in technology-mediated teaching. Devices may be unused and procedures may be avoided because they introduce excessive extraneous cognitive load.  It also helps IT managers understand the changing perceptions of and uses of technologies; as technology solutions become more familiar (through training and familiarity) they should become more widely used.


Sweller, J., Ayres, P. L., & Kalyuga, S. (2011). Cognitive load theory. New York: Springer.