A Blueprint for Design (part 1)

12 Apr

A little over a year ago while reading Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load by Ruth Colvin Clark, Frank Nguyen and John Sweller, I came across an interesting instructional design theory called Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). It’s based on knowledge of human cognitive architecture – which is how we process and organise information.

If we can better understand the human cognitive process, we can apply principles of CLT to design better learning instruction resulting in improved outcomes. Plus there is research behind these claims too!

In our brains, we have two types of memory. One is our working memory, which we use to process new information. The capacity of our working memory is quite limited so it can only handle so much before it becomes overloaded. The second is our long-term memory, which is where we store information from our working memory and where we retrieve that information from later. Within long-term memory, information is organised into schemas, which are organisational frameworks (like filing cabinets).

Not exceeding working memory capacity will result in greater transfer of information into long-term memory. CLT proposes that there are three types of cognitive load:

Intrinsic: this is the level of complexity inherent in the material being studied. There isn’t much that we can do about intrinsic cognitive load; some tasks are more complex than others so will have different levels of intrinsic cognitive load.

Extraneous: this is cognitive load imposed by non-relevant elements that require extra mental processing e.g. decorative pictures, animations etc that add nothing to the learning experience.

Germane: these are elements that allow cognitive resources to be put towards learning i.e. assist with information processing.

The three types of cognitive load are additive so according to the theory, for instruction to be effective:

Intrinsic load + Extraneous load + Germane load < Working memory capacity

Where possible, we need to increase germane cognitive load and reduce extraneous cognitive load when we design and deliver training/education/learning. Everything we include in a course needs to have a purpose – it needs to add to the learning experience in some way.

Some questions that I have that I haven’t been able to find answers for yet:

Is each person’s working memory capacity the same?

Does intelligence play a part?

If working memory capacity is not exceeded, how long can someone keep processing information?

Next time I’ll look at some of the CLT effects and how learning can be improved.


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2 responses to “A Blueprint for Design (part 1)

  1. ChristianDN

    May 17, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    In my opinion people do have different work capacity and that is what makes this theory a dilemma to apply.

    There are many people who reach their capacity at some point yet can still process and understand the information later with activities and application. Does this suggests that as we increase the load of learning assistance (Germane load/activities and application) we are actually increasing working memory capacity?

    • learningsnippets

      May 18, 2013 at 12:42 am

      I agree that people must have different working memory capacities and yes it does make this tricky to apply in practice. Certianly novice and experienced learners WM capacities are different because experienced learners have more schema framworks in their long-term memory that they can draw from which is not impacting as much on their WM.

      The increased undertanding from activities and application later are also part of the schema building and transfer to LTM.

      Germane load doesn’t increase WM capacity per se, it just keeps the cognitive load within the limitations of ones WM.


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