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An insight on an article:
Cognitive Load Theory, Learning Difficulty and Instructional Design
John Sweller

Section 1: Learning Mechanisms
What are the mechanisms that enable us to achieve mastery of a subject matter?
There are two crucial learning mechanisms:
Automation of intellectual operations

1.1 Schema
i. Schemas can be used to explain most of the learned, intellectual skills that
people exhibit.
ii. Every knowledge that we acquired is organized into schemas.
iii. Thus, new information presented is altered so that it is compatible with the
existing schemas of a person.
iv. In short, schema determines how new information is processed.
v. For example, adults or experienced readers are able to read wider range of
reading materials compared to children because they have acquired broader
schemas for each letter, wider range of vocabulary and word combinations or
sentence structures.
vi. These schemas permit them to readily read more difficult reading materials as
their existing schemas containing wider vocabulary, sentence structures, etc
enable them to process the new information accordingly.
vii. In a similar manner, there are schemas for dealing with problems.
viii. Schemas for dealing with problems are organized according to the solution
ix. Therefore, when problem is presented, a person will use his existing schemas to
deal with the problem. A person can readily deal with a problem if they have
existing schemas that the problem can fit into. Otherwise, a person would have
difficulty to solve a problem if the problem could not be fitted into his existing



1.2. Automation of Intellectual Operations
i. Automation of intellectual operations means the transfer of learned procedures
from controlled to automatic processing.
ii. It is assumed the processing of information is dichotomous: it can be either
controlled or automatic.
iii. Controlled processing occurs when presented information is consciously
attended to.
iv. For example, children who just learn to read will be reading in a controlled
fashion as they may have to spell individual syllable or words.
v. On the other hand, automatic processing occurs without conscious control.
vi. For example, adults can read the words on a newspaper without conscious effort
to pay attention to individual letters or words as for this processing, they have
switched from controlled to automatic long time ago when they become more
proficient in reading.
vii. The switch from controlled to automatic processing is continuous and slow.
viii. Increasing familiarity towards the information decreases the need to consciously
attend the information presented during cognitive processing. Gradually, the
process becomes more automated. This is when controlled processing is shifted
to automatic processing.
ix. Therefore, a considerable amount of time and practice is needed to shift from
controlled processing to automatic processing.
x. When a skill becomes automated, only a minimal thought is required for its
xi. Without automation, performance is slow, clumsy and full of error. This is why
automation is an essential mechanism of learning.

Section 2: The function of learning
i. From the above explanation, schema and automation are two important enablers
for learning to occur effectively.
ii. Therefore, the function of learning should be: to store automated schemas in
long-term memory.
iii. If every learning is conducted parallel to this function, then every students would
possess the two crucial learning mechanisms which are schema and automation.
As a results, every student who possess these learning mechanisms can achieve
iv. The possession of schema and automation not only facilitate mastery, but they
also share another advantage: reducing working memory load.


v. Schemas increase the amount of information that can be stored in working
memory by chunking the information (taking small units of information and
grouping them into larger units). For example, remembering a concept rather
than every single word in a page.
vi. Thus, a schema not only permits long-term memory but adjusts working memory
limitations as well.
vii. Meanwhile, automation reduced working memory load as processing that occurs
automatically requires less working memory space. As a results, capacity is freed
for other functions. In other words, automation permits working memory to be by-

Section 3: Facilitating learning and problem solving: From the point of view of
Cognitive Load Theory

i. As mentioned above, the function of learning should be: to store automated
schemas in long-term memory.
ii. As an implication, instructional techniques that require students to engage in
activities should be directed at schema acquisition and automation.
i. According to cognitive load theory, instructional techniques that steer away from
this principal results in the use of processing capacity that is greater than our
limits. Therefore, they are likely to be defective.
ii. Novice problem solvers often use means-ends analysis.
iii. Means-ends strategy involves attempting to extract differences between each
problem state encountered and the goal state and then finding problem solving
operators that can be used to reduce or eliminate those differences.
iv. Cognitive load theory highlighted that engaging in complex activities such as
means-end strategy impose a heavy cognitive load and are irrelevant to schema
acquisition. As a results, mastery would be disrupted.
v. Many series of experiments have been conducted based on cognitive load theory
to investigate instructional techniques that can reduce cognitive load and geared
towards schema acquisition and automation.
vi. Many experiments demonstrated repeatedly that goal-free problems and worked
examples techniques facilitated learning by reducing extraneous cognitive load
compared to conventional procedure such as means-ends strategy.
vii. After discovering instructional techniques to facilitate learning by reducing
cognitive load as mentioned above, here is a question to ponder:



Section 4: When cognitive load theory should be applied?:
Characteristics of materials
Extraneous cognitive load by definition is entirely under instructional control.
Extraneous cognitive load can come from the manner in which information is
presented or from the activities the students are required to do.
Cognitive load that is imposed by material is not just a result of instructional
It is also resulted from the complexity of information presented.
In short, cognitive load imposed by instructional material can be divided into two
a) due to the intrinsic complexity of the core information
b) due to cognitive activities required of students because of the manner in which
the information is presented.
The following part of this write-up provides one potential framework to study the
complexity of information by comparing different types of information.
Should cognitive load theory and the instructional techniques described above
be applied to the design of all learning and problem solving materials?
Almost certainly not.
If the materials themselves do not impose a heavy cognitive load, the
instructional techniques used may not matter much (whether a technique
imposes extraneous cognitive load or the one that reduces cognitive load is
chosen). This is because the total cognitive load (from materials and from the
techniques used) may not exceed the processing capacity of the individual.
Extraneous cognitive load should be considered from two points of view:
From the material itself
From the instructional technique used


4.1 A study of informational complexity.

One potential framework proposed to study informational complexity is by looking
at the level of element interactivity: Does the level of element interactivity
influence informational complexity?
Element is defined as any material that needs to be learned.
The level of element interactivity refers to the extent to which the elements of a
task can be meaningfully learned without having to learn the relations between
any other elements.
Low element interactivity = when the elements of a task can be learned in

Example: Learning the anatomy and terminology of a biological specimen. Each
of the individual anatomy and terminology can be learned separately without
considering the whole set.

High element interactivity = when a task cannot be learned without
simultaneously learning the connections between a large number of elements.

Example: Learning a simple mathematical procedure such as simplifying a
fraction 4/6. In order to learn this mathematical procedure, the students must
simultaneously learn that both the denominator and numerator must be divided
with a same number over and over until they dont share a similar divider

This framework suggested that the level of element interactivity does not
influence informational complexity; instead a task may be difficult and lengthy
because of the amount of information it contains.

4.2 Element interactivity and cognitive load
It is suggested that element interactivity, like instructional design has cognitive
load consequences as well.
If both element interactivity and instructional design have cognitive
consequences, relations between these factors need to be investigated.


It is proposed that total cognitive load is a combination of at least two separate
factors: extraneous cognitive load and intrinsic cognitive load.
Extraneous cognitive load = determines by the manner in which information is
presented or from the activities the students are required to do (imposed by
instructional methods).
Intrinsic cognitive load = determines primarily by element interactivity in which
instructor has no control over
Low element interactivity results in low cognitive load generated by materials
High element interactivity results in high cognitive load generated by materials
The above explanation stated a distinction of the source of cognitive load: it can
come from extraneous or intrinsic.
However, from a point of view of a student in which he/she is required to
assimilate some new materials, this distinction is irrelevant.
Learning will be difficult if cognitive load is high, regardless the source of the
cognitive load; whether it is extraneous or intrinsic.
On the other hand, from a point of view of an instructor, the distinction between
extraneous cognitive load and intrinsic cognitive load is important.
This is because, intrinsic cognitive load is fixed and cannot be changes but the
instructor can modify their instructional methods to reduce extraneous cognitive
Nevertheless, although intrinsic cognitive load cannot be altered, it does have
important implications for instructional design.
Section 5 discusses the implications of intrinsic cognitive load towards instructional

Section 5: Instructional implications of intrinsic cognitive load
Regardless of which type of cognitive load is higher (whether extraneous or
intrinsic), instructional effectiveness will be disrupted only if the total cognitive
load exceeds cognitive resources.
Therefore, intrinsic cognitive load can be regarded as constant variable as it is
fixed and the instructor does not have any control over it.
Thus, an instructor must adjust the extraneous cognitive load to ensure that
when the amount of extraneous cognitive load is added to the existing intrinsic
cognitive load, the total cognitive load imposed does not exceeds the cognitive
In other words, the level of element interactivity (which caused intrinsic cognitive
load) must be considered when designing an instruction with a goal to reduce
extraneous cognitive load in mind.


For example, the fact that extraneous cognitive load can severely reduce
instructional may be irrelevant when coupled with low intrinsic cognitive load as
the total cognitive load is not excessive.
In contrast, the fact above will be relevant if high extraneous cognitive load is
paired with high intrinsic cognitive load (due to high element interactivity)
because the total load will exceed cognitive resources, leading to learning failure.
In short, the instructional consequences of extraneous cognitive load may be
primarily determined by intrinsic cognitive load caused by element interactivity.
Thus, in order to study the effect of cognitive load, high element interactivity
materials should be used for the effects to manifest themselves.

Section 6: Theoretical and instructional consequences of element
This paper suggested that materials contain high level of element interactivity
needs to be understood rather than merely learned.
Materials that has a low level of element interactivity only needs to be learned
rather than both understood and learned.
In this context, understanding can be defined as the learning of high element
interactivity material.
When the schemas associated with high element interactivity material have been
acquired, people feel they have understood the material.
When the schemas have become automated, it has been understood very well.
The analysis presented in this paper has implications for both experimenters and
instructional designers.
Experimenters who design experiments based on some cognitive load theory
may not obtain any effects associated with the theory if they use low element
interactivity materials. This has been mentioned in Section 5.
Instructional designers who want to see the effect of their design on cognitive
load theory may not be able to do so if they pair their instructional design with low
element interactivity materials. This is due to the fact that the extraneous
cognitive load is irrelevant if paired with low element interactivity if the total load
still does not exceed the cognitive capacity.
In short, the cognitive load theory may be irrelevant when paired with low
element interactivity materials.