Cognitive Load Theory for Memory Improvement

December 30, 2019
In this article, we'll discuss the Cognitive Load Theory, how it came to be and how it can be used to improve memory processes in humans.

John Sweller, an Australian psychologist specialized in Education, developed the Cognitive Load Theory during the late 1980s. To do so, Sweller worked from George Miller’s investigation on information processing.

The cognitive load theory is focused on learning and based on the idea that if the human brain can only do a limited amount of things at the same time, then we need to be clear on what we ask it to do.

“Cognitive load theory is based on a number of widely accepted theories about how human brains process and store information. These assumptions include: that human memory can be divided into working memory and long-term memory; that information is stored in the long term-memory in the form of schemas; and that processing new information results in ‘cognitive load’ on working memory which can affect learning outcomes.”

– Anderson (1977), Atkinson & Shiffrin (1968), Baddeley (1983) –

This means that, according to cognitive load theory, there’s a limit to the amount of new information the brain can process at the same time. There are no limits to how much already stored information it can process at once.

Cognitive Load Theory for Memory Improvement

The argument behind cognitive load theory

The brain works with short-term and long-term memory. Long-term memory keeps information well structured indefinitely.

Short-term memory receives information, processes it so it’s easier to understand and stores it in the long-term memory. This short-term memory has its limits. It’s capable of storing up to seven elements of information.

If the long-term memory can create structures for certain elements, the processes related to the information within this structure can take less effort, can become automatic.

When a person manages to create different mental schemas, they get the ability to structure faster and more efficiently the information they get. Understanding and analysis of this information can be done automatically.

At this moment, information appears in memory like an element of the working memory. This is known as “gaining experience.” For the learning process, understanding elements is easier if the information we obtain can be grouped in a logical way that creates a new mental schema.

You can relieve your cognitive load if you’re able to distribute the information throughout several means (visual or auditory, for example). This means that to learn, the information needs to go for the main target, no minor ones.

Cognitive Load Theory for Memory Improvement

What did Sweller propose?

“Cognitive load theory has been designed to provide guidelines intended to assist in the presentation of information in a manner that encourages learner activities that optimize intellectual performance.”

– Sweller –

Therefore, the base of knowledge is forming schemas throughout life. Inside these schemas, there could be others.

According to this theory, you can define the differences between an expert and an amateur. An amateur won’t have the same cognitive schemas that an expert has acquired throughout the years. With learning, schemas in the long-term memory change. This happens in the long run.

Cognitive Load Theory for Memory Improvement

When you know something and work with it, the cognitive characteristics you associate with that start to change, so your working memory can master them more efficiently.

This theory can also have direct consequences in the way teachers design their teaching methods, lectures, exams, and syllabus.

  • Paas, Fred, Alexander Renkl, y John Sweller. Cognitive load theory: Instructional implications of the interaction between information structures and cognitive architecture. Instructional science . (2004).
  • Singley, Mark K., y John Robert Anderson. The transfer of cognitive skill. Harvard University Press, 1989.
  • Atkinson, Stephanie. Cognitive style in the context of design and technology project work. Educational Psychology. (1998).
  • Shiffrin, Richard M. Perspectives on modeling in cognitive science. Topics in cognitive science. 2010.