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Cognitive Load Theory:

A Study in Fifth Grade Science and e-learning
Charles Wilcox
California State University, Monterey Bay


The purpose of this paper is to discuss cognitive theory in terms of problem solving in
an e-learning environment designed for California fifth grade science students. This
paper will focus on answering two fundamental questions: how does the instructional
designer use cognitive load theory, and the development of science related schemata,
in order to differentiate online learning for far below grade level, below grade level, at
grade level, proficient, and advanced students, in addition to students whose primary
language is not English, and how will the instructional designer determine pre-existing
schemata in order to properly design instruction to further develop students individual
schemata as they relate to their knowledge of how plants develop? The goal of the
learning objective is to use cognitive load theories to build upon pre-existing schemata
within the individual student (based on prior year learning) in order to structure, organize
and compartmentalize both instructional design and learning so as to facilitate higher
order and abstract thinking for the learner.

Cognitive load theory holds that learners have a finite capacity to remember specific
amounts of information within their working memory when learning new material, and
how they are able to transfer that information which has been placed into working
memory into long term memory. It is understood that the capacity to commit information
from working memory to long term memory has to do with an individuals different
schemata, and the relative information that they have compartmentalized into their
unique and particular schema (Kirschner, Sweller, Clark, 2006), where schema is the


compartmentalization and organization of information within each individual (Sweller,

2011). As an example, the average fifth grade student will have a fundamental
understanding of the different parts of a flowering plant, and may draw from their plant
schema to describe the plant as being composed of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, etc.
Whereas the adult botanist will have much more information within their own personal
plant schema, such as the various species common and scientific name, chemical
properties of the plant, molecular makeup of the various parts of the plant and how they
are inter-related to similar species, etc. The information the two individuals in the
examples hold in their respective schemata is the information that they have committed
to long term memory. The information is there for them when they need it and it
requires little in the way of mental processing when recall is required. However the
amount of information is vastly different. The child holds a very rudimentary amount of
specific information about the plant within their personal schema, whereas the expert
holds vastly more information within their personal schema because they have slowly
acquired the information over time. Each learning experience the expert participated in;
they added to their plant schema and slowly became knowledgeable. With each
successive learning experience, the expert was able to draw from more and more
background knowledge and place any new information directly into their long term
memory with greater facility because of the previous information already acquired.
Cognitive load theory holds that there is a capacity with which an individual may place
new information into working memory without becoming too overloaded with
information, generally about seven bits of information (such as new vocabulary words
and their definitions), (Kirschner, 2002). When designing new curriculum, it is necessary


to determine what the individual learner already knows on the particular subject that is
to be taught. The instructional designer, failing to make this determination, runs the risk
of creating a learning module that is beyond the working memory capacity of the learner
(Kirschner, 2002). In addition, the instructional designer must also be cautious not to
create a learning module which is composed of information that the learner already
knows. By means of pretesting, the instructional designer gains an understanding of
where to begin instruction so as to avoid these two scenarios. From there, they may
create instruction and assessment using different scaffolding strategies designed to
avoid cognitive load.

In order to answer the question of how to use cognitive load theories to develop
students of varying academic functional levels, the instructional designer must apply
different scaffolding techniques in order to facilitate learning (Paas, Renkl, Sweller,
2003). As the name suggests, scaffolding metaphorically refers to the process of
providing guidance to learners of varying levels of readiness. In this scenario, where
fifth grade students will be building upon their understanding of plant structures,
scaffolds may take the form of case studies, worked examples, goal-free problems,
completion effect, split attention, and the modality effect (Sweller, 2011). With case
studies, learners are provided with real world examples provided at the end of a lesson.
Learners will generally break up into groups and discuss the case study in order to
determine what the proper outcome to a situation presented would be. They then return
to the class, report their findings and compare that to what actually happened. Further


discussion may take place after that do determine which discussion decisions were
successful and which were not. The idea of goal-free problems enables the learner to
focus just on the problem as opposed to the goal. Novice learners tend to focus more
on the goal and less on the learning objective (Kirschner, Sweller, Clark, 2006). An
example of goal-focused learning would be game-based learning situations where
students are more focused on earning points in a game than they are about
understanding the learning objective (Annetta, Minogue, Holmes, Cheng, 2009).
Worked, or partially completed examples, provide scaffolding to the learner by enabling
them to discover the direction they need to take in order to solve a problem. The
worked, or partially worked example can start out with all of the information the learner
needs to solve a problem and then have more information removed as they progress
from novice to experts in a particular learning situation. Split-attention and the modality
effect are similar in that they require the instructional designer to use different media to
help convey the lesson for the learner. As we shall see, the two techniques are superior
for use in an e-learning environment. Split-attention is the use of two or more different
media to present information to the learner (Sweller, 2011). An example of this would
be an image of a plant cross section in a science textbook and a caption below
describing the image. The modality effect, presents information in two different sensory
modalities such as audio and imagery, helping to reduce working memory overload
(Sweller, 2011). An example of this would be a learner participating in an e-lesson
where they viewed a time-lapse video of a plant sprouting from a seed, while a narrator
described the process.


Learner Analysis
The project that is the focus of this paper is a fifth grade science unit on how plants
obtain the materials they need for growth from the air and the soil (Next Generation
Science Standard 5-LS1-1). This unit will be designed as an interactive e-learning
project, and the intended audience will include any fifth grade class in California
currently studying life sciences in their classroom. Given the broad learning levels of an
audience population, and the fact that the intention of the science unit will be to include
all levels of readiness in fifth grade, scaffolding the lessons will be of primary focus.
This section will be a discussion on which scaffolding technique would be most useful
for each level of readiness within the fifth grade, where levels of readiness are
determined by end-of-year state tests and categorized as far below grade level, below
grade level, basic, proficient, and advanced.

Students who perform consistently far below grade level are generally scoring 59% or
below on grade level standardized and benchmark exams. Students below grade level
consistently score between 60% to 69% on these same exams, while basic students
score between 70% to 79%. Basic students would be considered to be performing to
the norm at their grade level. Students consistently performing from 80% to 89% fall
within the proficient range and those students who consistently score 90% and above
are considered advanced (Illuminate Ed, 2014). The specific method of scaffolding for
each of these levels must be determined prior to instructional design. Since English
language learners participate in the same exams as students whose primary language
is English, it will be assumed in this paper that differentiation and scaffolding techniques


applied to the learning level will apply to those English language learners who fall within
the same category.

Students who consistently perform far below basic are those students who may be
diagnosed with a specific learning disability, such as dyslexia (Collins, Brown, Newman,
1989). In addition, English learners who have severely limited knowledge of the
language will tend to fall into this category as well (Chamot, Omalley, 1987). For those
students with a specific learning disability, it will be necessary to determine what the
disability is before designing instruction. However, some of the scaffolding techniques
previously mentioned in this paper would be of value for students who perform at this
level. The working memory of a student at this level will be limited in terms of how
much information the instructional designer may apply to a specific learning objective. It
will be necessary to limit the amount of information presented to this learner at one time
before moving on. Two scaffolding techniques the instructional designer should use for
students who perform far below basic would be the modality effect and the split
attention effect. The modality effect will help English learners apply auditory vocabulary
to images presented on the computer screen(Tabers, Martens, Merrienboer, 2004).
Other students at this level will benefit from split-attention effect scaffolds by being
presented with an image and a limited amount of textual information that they will have
to process. The information that they will be required to remember is split between
words and pictures, thus facilitating learning.


Students who fall within the range of below grade level will require similar scaffolding
techniques as the students who are far below grade level. In addition to split-attention
and modality effects, scaffolds such as worked problems and partially completed
problems will be of benefit. Worked and partially completed problems will work well with
these students because they will tend to need the extra guidance in problem solving
situations. Students who consistently perform below grade level will do so for varying
reasons, either through specific learning disabilities, emotional readiness, or lack of
sufficient background knowledge. By requiring these students to complete problems
that are presented in a logical and linear manner, they will understand the direction of
the instruction and enable them to retain the material more quickly and efficiently.

Students performing at the basic level are performing at grade level, but not to the
extent to where they are flourishing. These tend to be students who tend to have
trouble focusing their attention during general lessons. Scaffolding for these students
will include all of the previous scaffolds for the students previously discussed. In
addition, it will be important to provide the students with goal-free problems to work
toward. In an e-learning environment, this could take the form of an interactive game in
which the goal is to demonstrate understanding of the learning objective as opposed to
getting the greatest number of points. Goal-free problems require the learner to focus
specifically on what the instructional designer has established as the learning objective,
thusly reducing cognitive load and increasing working memory.


Proficient and advanced students will tend to have more complex schemata in relation
to the previous students (Sweller, 2011). The students who consistently perform at the
proficient and advanced levels tend to have more innate curiosity and consequently
have managed to build up their knowledge schemata accordingly. Students at this level
will not require scaffolds as much as they will need specific challenges. Case studies
work well with students who perform at this level because they will need to apply what
they know in order to determine the proper outcome to a real world situation. Case
studies will play into the innate curiosity of the students in this category and will provide
for an enriched learning environment with the other lesson participants. Students who
perform at the basic level or below will be provided with peer-level information that they
may draw from and incorporate into their working memory, while increasing their
subject-related schema.

Integrating scaffolding techniques into an e-learning unit enables learners to maximize

their working memory and helps them to avoid cognitive overload. It is important to note
the three types of cognitive load that pertain more specifically to e-learning. These are
discussed below.

Intrinsic, Extraneous, Germane Cognitive Load

Intrinsic cognitive load pertains to learning material that is innately difficult to retain. The
information is generally very complex and requires total focus on the part of the learner.
Extraneous cognitive load comes from information being presented to the learner that is
not the information in the learning objective. Goal-free problems are an example of



problems that are designed to avoid extraneous cognitive load because they are
focused on getting the learner to focus only on the objective. Germane cognitive load
enables the learner to focus directly on the information that is being presented and
theoretically increase the capacity of their working memory because they are fully
engaged in the learning objective (Sweller, 2011).

Intrinsic, extraneous, and germane cognitive load pertain to this fifth grade science elearning unit because it must be taken into account what information will be necessary
for the students to be successful in the learning objectives. Given the differentiation of
the learning levels, intrinsic cognitive load will require the instructional designer to
determine, through pretesting, what the students know and what they dont know about
the subject they will be learning. Techniques such as KWL charts and prerequisite
exams in which students are required to complete questions about their knowledge of
plant life will help the instructional designer plan differentiated lessons. Know, want to
know, and what I learned (KWL) charts will provide anecdotal information for the
instructional designer as to the readiness level of the students. It will be necessary to
design instruction using grade level vocabulary in order to avoid intrinsic cognitive load.
Extraneous cognitive load comes from information that is presented to the learner that is
outside of the learning objective. Information which may be interesting, or designed to
hold the attention of the learner but is not directly associated with the learning objective,
may be considered extraneous cognitive load. In an e-learning environment,
extraneous cognitive load can quickly take over a lesson when the instructional
designer is more focused on entertaining the learner as opposed to designing



instruction where the learner retains the information pertinent to the learning objective.
Last, germane cognitive load is achieved when the learner is fully engaged in the
learning objective. It is the goal of the instructional designer to have the learners
maintain germane cognitive load. This can come about in the lesson/unit when the
instructional designer has matched the correct scaffolds to the individual student, while
maintaining enough information in the learning objective to prevent intrinsic cognitive
load. Germane cognitive load is also maintained when the instructional designer
manages to create an e-lesson or unit that holds the interest of the learner, while
managing to avoid extraneous information that will detract from the learning objective.

Cognitive theory maintains that learning takes place when new information presented to
an individual can be aligned with information that already exists in long term memory. It
is through these stored memories that individuals interact with the sensory information
received from the environment, selectively attend to this information, relate it to memory,
and actively construct meaning for it (Wittrock, 1990). Cognitive load theory helps the
instructional designer understand how to design and develop learning materials that
facilitate learning without taxing the individuals working memory. When an individual is
able to process information into working memory and then relate this information to
what is stored within a particular schema within their memory, they are capable of
transitioning from novice to expert within that particular schema. Information is much
more readily transferred from working memory to long term memory when the individual
has sufficient background knowledge so as to relate the new information to already



stored information. The instructional designer must take cognitive load into account
when designing e-learning programs to the extent that they are avoiding extraneous
information that may add to the entertainment of the participant, but does nothing to
promote the learning objective. Germane cognitive load provides learning objectives
that are suited not only to the individual in terms of differentiation and scaffolding for
different learning styles, but also in terms of providing e-learning objectives that are
specific to what is to be learned. Interactive games may be considered as a learning
tool, so long as the activity is designed around the learning objective. Game-based
learning, in which the object is to accumulate points, will prevent the learner from
committing new information to long term memory.

The e-learning objective for fifth grade science instruction is to design instruction which
allows for the individual learner to gain greater knowledge as they progress through the
interactive unit. The information provided in the learning unit must convey as much, if
not more information than what the students would have available to them in their
classroom textbook. However, in the e-learning unit the emphasis is on interactivity
through online laboratories, videos and quizzes, as opposed to traditional reading
passages. The intention is to differentiate through interactivity, scaffolding and
remediation. Students at different levels must show progress, but it is not the intention
of the learning unit to ensure that all students must accomplish the same tasks in order
to demonstrate progress. A student consistently performing far below grade level
should not be expected to demonstrate the same proficiency as a student who
consistently performs at the advanced level upon completion of the unit, but the student



should be demonstrating through formative and summative assessments that they have
gained new knowledge. The challenge for the instructional designer is to create an elearning unit on fifth grade science about plant structure and function that demonstrates
progress on the part of all learners.




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