Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design: Recent Developments (2003) by Fred Paas, Alexander Renkl and John Sweller

This is a text that I’ve seen repeatedly referenced online as an important introduction to CLT. After reading it, I’m not convinced that this is the best place to start with learning about CLT. It’s the introduction/editorial for an issue of Educational Psychologist and gives a broad overview of the state of CLT and its relationship with instructional design in 2003. It briefly defines key elements such as intrinsic cognitive load, extraneous cognitive load, germane cognitive load, working memory, expertise reversal effect and schemas.

These are my reading notes on the article:

  • “By simultaneously considering the structure of information and the cognitive architecture that allows learners to process that information, cognitive load theorists have been able to generate a unique variety of new and sometimes counterintuitive instructional designs and procedures.”
  • ▾ 1. Intrinsic Cognitive Load
    • “Element interactivity is the driver of our first category of
      cognitive load. That category is called intrinsic cognitive
      load because demands on working memory capacity imposed by element interactivity are intrinsic to the material being learned.”
    • Different tasks (materials) cause different cognitive loads.
    • It might be unavoidable to have to omit elements in highly complex tasks. Then teach them subsequently.
    • It is only with simultaneous processing of all essential elements that high-intrinsic occur that understanding begins.
    • ▾ Working Memory
      • “Working memory, in which all conscious cognitive processing occurs, can handle only a very limited num- ber—possibly no more than two or three—of novel interacting elements.”
      • ▾ Long-term memory: “This memory store can contain vast numbers of schemas—cognitive constructs that incorporate multiple elements of information into a single element with a specific function.”
      • Schemas can be brought from long-term memory into working memory.
      • Automation of schemas held in long-term memory that are processed unconsciously reduces load on working memory.
    • CLT concerned with the instructional implications of the interaction between information structures and cognitive architecture.

  • 2 – Extraneous Cognitive Load (ineffective cognitive load)
    • “Extraneous cognitive load is primarily important when intrinsic cognitive load is high because the two forms of cognitive load are additive. If intrinsic cognitive load is low, levels of extraneous cognitive load may be less important because total cognitive load may not exceed working memory capacity. As a consequence, instructional designs intended to reduce cognitive load are primarily effective when element interactivity is high. When element interactivity is low, designs intended to reduce the load on working memory have little or no effect.”

  • ▾ 3 – Germane or Effective Cognitive Load
    • is influenced by the instructional designer
    • “The manner in which information
      is presented to learners and the learning activities required of learners are factors relevant to levels of germane cognitive load. Whereas extraneous cognitive load interferes with learning, germane cognitive load enhances learning.”
    • Increases in effort or motivation can increase the cognitive resources devoted to a task.
    • “the total load cannot exceed the working memory resources available if learning is to occur”
  • relationships between three loads are “asymmetric” ▾ The Expertise Reversal Effect
    • “the expertise reversal effect,
      indicating that instructional techniques that are effective with novices can lose their effectiveness and even become ineffective when used with more experienced learners.”
  • realistic tasks dealing with complex areas presented to novices with limited schematic knowledge are likely to impose a heavy cognitive load
  • scaffolding aspects (eg. worked examples, completion tasks then full problems)
  • timing of introduction of essential information
  • overarching support information presented first so that learners can construct schema.
  • “fading technique”
  • strong evidence that as levels of expertise increase it is appropriate to decrease instructor control and increase learner control.
  • moderating factors of teacher and learner goals