Cognitive Load Theory

A few weeks ago I started reading up on Cognitive Load Theory. I found a few things about CLT to be quite interesting. In particular, there seems to be quite a bit of research to back up the idea that guided instruction can be the most effective way for people to learn. As well, CLT explains how working memory works in conjunction with long-term memory, and how this dynamic plays out with learners.

I first came across CLT through Veritasium’s YouTube channel. In one video, Derek interviews John Sweller. Sweller gives some convincing arguments about CLT and the idea that direct instruction is efficient:

The basic premise is that many times a learner is overloading their working memory, and that the new information learned is not transferred into long term memory. This immediately struck a chord with me, as it explains something that I see a lot in math class. I’ll see students work hard and struggle through some Socratic questioning on a new topic. They’ll make significant progress, only for them to struggle with the same topic 30 minutes later. Sweller indicated that there is a lot of research that backs up this hypothesis. I searched through some of the published papers, and it appears that there is validity to it.

What CLT and Sweller don’t discuss is the issue of engagement. Sweller is very specific about this - CLT is a theory about how someone learns and does not address issues of motivation and engagement. So even if someone agrees that CLT explains a good way to teach, CLT by itself does not guarantee success. This is where things like inquiry and cooperative learning guide us in good teaching practice. Inquiry helps students identify things that they are curious about, and gives them a reason for wanting to learn something. Cooperative learning gives learners affordances for discussing and negotiating their questions, confusions and successes. These are just two examples that help balance the idea of direct instruction with constructivism. It also makes sense to me that CLT can inform us on how and when to apply direct instruction at specific times for specific reasons, while at the same time working in conjunction with constructive methodologies. Being aware of CLT has certainly helped me realize what is going on with many of my students, and will definitely give me another tool moving forward.