kitchen table math, the sequel: Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) For Beginners

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) For Beginners

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) from Greg Kearsley's site, Theory into Practice:

Sweller's Cognitive Load Theory: Overview

This theory suggests that learning happens best under conditions that are aligned with human cognitive architecture. The structure of human cognitive architecture, while not known precisely, is discernible through the results of experimental research. Recognizing George Miller's research showing that short term memory is limited in the number of elements it can contain simultaneously, Sweller builds a theory that treats schemas, or combinations of elements, as the cognitive structures that make up an individual's knowledge base. (Sweller, 1988)

The contents of long term memory are "sophisticated structures that permit us to perceive, think, and solve problems," rather than a group of rote learned facts. These structures, known as schemas, are what permit us to treat multiple elements as a single element. They are the cognitive structures that make up the knowledge base (Sweller, 1988). Schemas are acquired over a lifetime of learning, and may have other schemas contained within themselves.

The difference between an expert and a novice is that a novice hasn't acquired the schemas of an expert. Learning requires a change in the schematic structures of long term memory and is demonstrated by performance that progresses from clumsy, error-prone, slow and difficult to smooth and effortless. The change in performance occurs because as the learner becomes increasingly familiar with the material, the cognitive characteristics associated with the material are altered so that it can be handled more efficiently by working memory.

From an instructional perspective, information contained in instructional material must first be processed by working memory. For schema acquisition to occur, instruction should be designed to reduce working memory load. Cognitive load theory is concerned with techniques for reducing working memory load in order to facilitate the changes in long term memory associated with schema acquisition.
From Kevin McGrew's blog, a guest post by Walter Howe, Cognitive Load Theory for School Psychologists:

  • Have you ever done something successfully, but not known exactly how you did it? It’s a common experience. It works, but we generally either cannot repeat this feat readily or transfer this performance to other, similar situations. We have performed a particular task successfully, but we haven’t really learnt a lot.
  • In CLT, this one-off success isn’t learning (in other theories it is regarded as learning, and termed implicit learning or procedural knowledge). Learning only occurs when we have abstracted a series of steps and rules that we can repeat in similar situations or even teach others so they, too, can be successful. These rules and procedures are called schemas or schemata and they are stored in long-term memory. Novices, by definition, either don’t have a schema for a particular learning task or it is very unsophisticated. Experts, on the other hand, have many, very sophisticated schemas, which they apply without thinking (i.e. the application of these schemas has become automatic).
  • CLT is concerned with how we learn or (in CLT terms), how we develop schemas and automate them and become experts. It applies to learning relatively complex material, as schema acquisition and development are generally unimportant for simple tasks, although how simple a task is depends both on the task itself and the individual who is learning how to do it successfully, as you will see.
Go read the whole thing, and while you are at it, poke around with Kevin McGrew's other posts on cognitive load theory and math, for starters.

CLT has obvious implications for the design of instruction in mathematics, among other things.

Kevin McGrew keeps a number of wonderful resources: IQ's Corner ("An attempt to share contemporary research findings, insights, musings, and discussions regarding theories and applied measures of human intelligence. In other words, a quantoid linear mind trying to make sense of the nonlinear world of human cognitive abilities.") Tick Tock Talk: The IQ brain clock ("An attempt to track the "pulse" of contemporary research and theory regarding the psychology/neuroscience of brain-based mental/interval time keeping. In addition, the relevance of neuroscience research to learning/education will also be covered.")


Catherine Johnson said...


thank you, thank you, thank you!

I was just this morning reading Sweller, Kirschner & Clark's response to the responses to their original article.

Why Minimally Guided Teaching Techniques Do not Work Educational Psychologist June 2006 41(2)

Is Direct Instruction an Answer to the Right Question? by Deanna Kuhn Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 109-113

"Beyond basic literacy and numeracy, it has become next to impossible to predict what kinds of knowledge people will need to thrive in the mid-21st century....Of course we want children to acquire
some rudimentary understanding of the physical and biological
world around them, but it is by now obvious that we can
hope to impart only an arbitrary smattering of what there is
to know in these complex and rapidly expanding scientific

Why Minimally Guided Teaching Techniques Do Not Work: A Reply to Commentaries by John Sweller, Paul A. Kirschner, & Richard E. Clark Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 115-121

"[Kuhn] suggests we should consider,
“. . . whether to teach knowledge at all” (p. 110). Rather,
we should “teach . . . the skills of knowledge acquisition”
(p. 110). She does not describe any of the critical thinking
skills she favors or how to teach them or how they might
relate to human cognitive architecture. Indeed, she makes no
mention of human cognitive architecture, implying by omission,
for example, that a limited working memory is an irrelevant
instructional consideration.


Kuhn (2007), in common
with most other supporters of IL, does not describe any inquiry
skills, let alone provide evidence that teaching the skills
has benefits. If we cannot describe a single, novel, general
inquiry skill a half century after the concept of IL was introduced
to the field, and if we are not to emphasize the theories
and findings of physical and biological science, we unnecessarily
limit what is to be taught in the science classroom.

: A Repy to Commentaries

PaulaV said...


Thank you so much for posting this! Working memory has remained a bit of a mystery to me. Regarding my son, who has low working memory, I found it perplexing that someone with an average IQ, but superior academic performance, could have a deficiency in working memory. As I was reading the cognitive load theory last night, the part that jumped off the page was intrinsic and extrinsic cognitive load.

concernedCTparent said...

"Intelligence is what allows students to learn in spite of their teachers"

I love this quote from one of the comments over at IQ Corner.

This research is fascinating and extremely valuable. Thanks so much for those links.

Catherine Johnson said...

The difference between an expert and a novice is that a novice hasn't acquired the schemas of an expert.

That's what I thought!!!

Catherine Johnson said...

Liz - if you stop by - is Sweller the originator of "schema theory" -- ? (Not sure "schema theory" is the right term...)

Catherine Johnson said...

the cognitive characteristics associated with the material are altered so that it can be handled more efficiently by working memory

I have GOT to get around to posting the expertise "take" on schemas and memory (can't remember whether Ericsson uses the term "schema").

One of the mysteries of expertise has been the phenomenal amount of content experts can hold in short-term memory.

For a while there, I think (not fact-checked), cognitive psychologists were hypothesizing that experts actually had a novel form of "long term working memory" -- something like that.

Then they realized that experts have something I think they're calling "superchunking."

Superchunking is an expert schema.

ElizabethB said...

Here is the superchunking schema for reading and spelling (one page for each, all you need to know about the sound-spelling patterns of the most common words in the English language on one page!)

I have most of it in my brain, but I sometimes have to look up some of it, especially with things like ie and ei where I also have contrary foreign language sound-spelling patterns in my brain.

I also find Bishop's Book "The ABC's and All Their Tricks" very helpful, she has the same information with a lot of words for each pattern and a few exceptions on the side. Plus, she writes (unlike those evil tech manual people) in very clear, concise English!

ElizabethB said...

You'd also have to know syllable division rules, but there are only a few rules. However, you need a fair amount of underlying knowledge of phonics to understand them and use them.

For example, when we lived in Germany, we watched the movie "The Matrix" in a German movie theater. When we called to see what time it played, they pronounced it mat-rix. I have only recently realized that the faulty pronunciation came from a poor syllable division that did not recognize tr as a blend. ("Divide before and after blends" sometimes over-rides the rule "divide between two consonants.")

(Although, also in retrospect, this German movie theater worker may have had a better understanding of English syllable division than many sight word taught students here!)

Allison said...

re: superchunking and other schemas:

driving a car is a fantastic example.

You learned how to drive most likely on one car, maybe two, but over your lifetime, you drive many cars.

Sometimes, you even borrow them, and certain things are different. Some are stick shift and some are automatic. Even for sticks, they have the gears in different places. VWs historically for example had a strange Reverse position: you had to push DOWN and to the left of First Gear. Porsches sometimes had Reverse to the Left of First Gear too. Some cars have Reverse where first is, and first where 2nd is.

But when you change cars, your brain does NOT spend a lot of time relearning where ALL of the gears are. It simply maps on top of your already fixed notions "1st in this car is where Reverse is in my car."

That kind of high level mapping doesn't change your underlying architecture for motor coordination, doesn't undo your motor coordination when you go back to your normal car. It's the high level schema that's being changed or mapped onto.

Of course, driving a car has other fantastic examples of schema too...think of all the chunking you do. Teaching driving is difficult because most of us are such experts at driving we've "forgotten" --i.e. Chunked into higher schema--all of the individual details we do on a second-to-second basis. We just think "change lanes" without thinking about checking our mirrors, checking the car in front isn't stopping quickly, turning the signal on, speeding up slightly to make the vector addition work out, turning the wheel slightly, turning off the signals, etc. If you didn't chunk that stuff, you'd never really be able to drive well--too much to do, esp. with the radio on and that soda in the cupholder.

LynnG said...

I would think that high level mapping on top of the underlying architecture would produce some dangerous inefficiencies in your car example (which are probably all true).

For example, if I'm driving my friend's car, which has the reverse gear where my 1st gear is mapped, I might inadvertently put the car in reverse, when I'm aiming for 1st, if I'm in a high pressure, instantaneous response kind of situation -- about to be run over by a truck, say.

Karen A said...

You don't really realize how much of your driving "schema" you take for granted until you are sitting in the passenger seat and your teenager is behind the wheel.

For example: "When I say 'hit the brakes,' then you need to hit the brakes, immediately!"

Or, when said child is learning to merge onto the interstate for the first time: "Speed up now! Now, I tell you!"

Or, "it doesn't matter if you have the right of way if the other car doesn't stop."