You are on page 1of 4


Copyright © 2003, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. PAAS, RENKL,


Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design:

Recent Developments
Fred Paas
Educational Technology Expertise Center
Open University of The Netherlands, Heerlen

Alexander Renkl
Department of Psychology
University of Freiburg, Germany

John Sweller
School of Education
The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Cognitive load theory (CLT) originated in the 1980s and un- interactivity is low because each item can be understood and
derwent substantial development and expansion in the 1990s learned without reference to any other items. In contrast,
by researchers from around the globe. As the articles in this learning how to edit a photo on a computer provides an exam-
special issue demonstrate, it is a major theory providing a ple of high-element interactivity. Changing the color tones,
framework for investigations into cognitive processes and in- darkness, and contrast of the picture cannot be considered in-
structional design. By simultaneously considering the struc- dependently because they interact. The elements of high-ele-
ture of information and the cognitive architecture that allows ment interactivity material can be learned individually, but
learners to process that information, cognitive load theorists they cannot be understood until all of the elements and their
have been able to generate a unique variety of new and some- interactions are processed simultaneously. As a consequence,
times counterintuitive instructional designs and procedures. high-element interactivity material is difficult to understand.
The genesis of this special issue emerged from an interna- Element interactivity is the driver of our first category of
tional symposium on CLT that was organized at the 2001 Bi- cognitive load. That category is called intrinsic cognitive
annual Conference of the European Association for Research load because demands on working memory capacity imposed
on Learning and Instruction, Fribourg, Switzerland. Most of by element interactivity are intrinsic to the material being
the articles that follow are based on contributions to that sym- learned. Different materials differ in their levels of element
posium and discuss the most recent work carried out within interactivity and thus intrinsic cognitive load, and they cannot
the cognitive load framework. Before summarizing those ar- be altered by instructional manipulations; only a simpler
ticles, we provide a brief outline of CLT. learning task that omits some interacting elements can be
Although the information that learners must process varies chosen to reduce this type of load. The omission of essential,
on many dimensions, the extent to which relevant elements interacting elements will compromise sophisticated under-
interact is a critical feature. Information varies on a contin- standing but may be unavoidable with very complex, high-el-
uum from low to high in element interactivity. Each element ement interactivity tasks. Subsequent additions of omitted
of low-element interactivity material can be understood and elements will permit understanding to occur. Simultaneous
learned individually without consideration of any other ele- processing of all essential elements must occur eventually de-
ments. Learning what the usual 12 function keys effect in a spite the high-intrinsic cognitive load because it is only then
photo-editing program provides an example. Element that understanding commences.
One may argue that this aspect of the structure of informa-
tion has driven the evolution of human cognitive architecture.
Requests for reprints should be sent to John Sweller, School of Education,
An architecture is required that can handle high-element
University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2026, Australia. E-mail: interactivity material. Human cognitive architecture met this requirement by its combination of working and long-term

memory. Working memory, in which all conscious cognitive reduce extraneous cognitive load compared to convention-
processing occurs, can handle only a very limited num- ally used procedures.
ber—possibly no more than two or three—of novel interact- Extraneous cognitive load is primarily important when in-
ing elements. This number is far below the number of trinsic cognitive load is high because the two forms of cogni-
interacting elements that occurs in most substantive areas of tive load are additive. If intrinsic cognitive load is low, levels
human intellectual activity. Alone, working memory would of extraneous cognitive load may be less important because
only permit relatively trivial human cognitive activities. total cognitive load may not exceed working memory capac-
Long-term memory provides humans with the ability to vastly ity. As a consequence, instructional designs intended to re-
expand this processing ability. This memory store can con- duce cognitive load are primarily effective when element
tain vast numbers of schemas—cognitive constructs that in- interactivity is high. When element interactivity is low, de-
corporate multiple elements of information into a single signs intended to reduce the load on working memory have
element with a specific function. little or no effect.
Schemas can be brought from long-term to working mem- The last form of cognitive load is germane or effective cog-
ory. Whereas working memory might, for example, only deal nitive load. Like extraneous cognitive load and unlike intrin-
with one element (e.g., a cognitive load that can be handled sic cognitive load, germane cognitive load is influenced by
easily), that element may consist of a large number of lower the instructional designer. The manner in which information
level, interacting elements. Those interacting elements may is presented to learners and the learning activities required of
far exceed working memory capacity if each element had to be learners are factors relevant to levels of germane cognitive
processed. Their incorporation in a schema means that only load. Whereas extraneous cognitive load interferes with
one element must be processed. If readers of this article are learning, germane cognitive load enhances learning. Instead
given the problem of reversing the letters of the last word of the of working memory resources being used to engage in search,
last sentence mentally, most will be able to do so. A schema is for example, as occurs when dealing with extraneous cogni-
available for this written word along with lower level schemas tive load, germane cognitive load results in those resources
for the individual letters and further schemas for the squiggles being devoted to schema acquisition and automation. Note
that make up the letters. This complex set of interacting ele- that increases in effort or motivation can increase the cogni-
ments can be manipulated in working memory because of tive resources devoted to a task. If relevant to schema acquisi-
schemas held in long-term memory. The automation of those tion and automation, such an increase also constitutes an
schemas so that they can be processed unconsciously further increase in germane cognitive load.
reduces the load on working memory. It is by this process that Intrinsic, extraneous, and germane cognitive loads are ad-
human cognitive architecture handles complex material that ditive in that, together, the total load cannot exceed the work-
appears to exceed the capacity of working memory. ing memory resources available if learning is to occur. The
CLT is concerned with the instructional implications of relations between the three forms of cognitive load are asym-
this interaction between information structures and cognitive metric. Intrinsic cognitive load provides a base load that is irre-
architecture. As well as element interactivity, the manner in ducible other than by constructing additional schemas and
which information is presented to learners and the learning automating previously acquired schemas. Any available
activities required of learners can also impose a cognitive working memory capacity remaining after resources have
load. When that load is unnecessary and so interferes with been allocated to deal with intrinsic cognitive load can be allo-
schema acquisition and automation, it is referred to as an ex- cated to deal with extraneous and germane load. These can
traneous or ineffective cognitive load. Extraneous cognitive work in tandem in that, for example, a reduction in extraneous
load is a second category of cognitive load. Many conven- cognitive load by using a more effective instructional design
tional instructional procedures impose extraneous cognitive can free capacity for an increase in germane cognitive load. If
load because most instructional procedures were developed learning is improved by an instructional design that reduces
without any consideration or knowledge of the structure of in- extraneous cognitive load, the improvement may have oc-
formation or cognitive architecture. For example, any in- curred because the additional working memory capacity freed
structional procedure that requires learners to engage in either by the reduction in extraneous cognitive load has now been al-
a search for a problem solution or a search for referents in an located to germane cognitive load. As a consequence of learn-
explanation (i.e., when Part A of an explanation refers to Part ing through schema acquisition and automation, intrinsic
B without clearly indicating where Part B is to be found) is cognitive load is reduced. A reduction in intrinsic cognitive
likely to impose a heavy extraneous cognitive load because load reduces total cognitive load, thus freeing working mem-
working memory resources must be used for activities that ory capacity. The freed working memory capacity allows the
are irrelevant to schema acquisition and automation. The arti- learner to use the newly learned material in acquiring more ad-
cles in this special issue are concerned with this second cate- vanced schemas. A new cycle commences; over many cycles,
gory of cognitive load, extraneous cognitive load, and, very advanced knowledge and skills may be acquired.
indeed, cognitive load theorists spend much of their time de- Such alterations in expertise also have profound instruc-
vising alternative instructional designs and procedures that tional implications that were realized in the late 1990s. Until

that time, research had focused on rather static situations in mentioned next, Renkl & Atkinson describe a related fading
which novices were confronted with high-interactive materi- procedure.) In addition, van Merriënboer et al. indicate that
als resulting in a fixed level of intrinsic cognitive load, which the timing of essential information presented to students can
could not be altered by instructional manipulations. Although be critical from a cognitive load perspective, with inappropri-
it was stated theoretically, the changes in cognitive load that ate timing unnecessarily increasing load. They suggest that
occurred as a function of increasing learner’s expertise were general, overarching supportive information be presented
not considered from an instructional perspective. Within this first so that learners can construct a schema to be used
static focus, two instructional goals can be characterized. Ini- throughout the task, whereas specific procedural information
tially, cognitive load research was aimed at the development should be presented only at the particular point when it is re-
of instructional techniques to reduce extraneous cognitive quired. Lastly, the authors present their four-component in-
load. The goal specificity, worked examples, completion, structional design model that integrates the various
split-attention, redundancy, and modality effects are the fruits instructional design principles outlined in their article.
of these research efforts. Under the assumption of a fixed in- The use of worked examples rather than solving the equiv-
trinsic load and working memory capacity, the successful re- alent problems is one of the earliest and probably the best
duction of extraneous load naturally leads to the hypothesis known cognitive load reducing technique. Renkl and
that the freed capacity could be deployed for techniques that Atkinson are concerned with the role of worked examples
increase germane cognitive load. Employing example vari- when learning to solve particular classes of problems and,
ability and prompting imagination are instructional tech- specifically, how that role should change as learners’ levels of
niques that have been used to substitute extraneous load with expertise increase. They suggest that in the earliest stages of
germane load. learning, when intrinsic cognitive load is high because few
With the publication in the late 1990s of research on levels schemas are available, learners should study instructions;
of expertise in instructional design, a second, more dynamic during intermediate stages when schema formation has freed
line of cognitive load research began to materialize. The dy- some working memory capacity, they should study worked
namic approach provides an opportunity for researchers to examples and increase germane load by using self-explana-
consider intrinsic load as a property of the task–subject inter- tions; in the final stages, there should be sufficient working
action, which is open to instructional control. Typically, re- memory capacity to permit more problem solving. Renkl and
search within this line studies instructional techniques that Atkinson describe the fading technique to facilitate the transi-
take into account the alterations in the cognitive load that oc- tion from the intermediate to final stages. Complete worked
cur as learners’ levels of expertise increase to facilitate the examples are faded by successively eliminating sections of
transition from novice to expert. The dynamic line’s main the worked example until eventually only a full problem re-
outcome can be summarized as the expertise reversal effect, mains. The intermediate, faded worked examples are comple-
indicating that instructional techniques that are effective with tion problems that are discussed in the van Merriënboer et
novices can lose their effectiveness and even become ineffec- al.’s article. This fading technique was found to be superior to
tive when used with more experienced learners. the traditional procedure of alternating worked examples and
In one way or another, the articles in this special issue re- problems.
flect this theory. The first three articles are all directly con- Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, and Sweller review research
cerned with this new, major concern of CLT: How should directly concerned with the consequences of differing levels
instructional design be altered as a learner’s knowledge in- of expertise on cognitive load effects. They indicate that
creases? Schematic information held in long-term memory many instructional design recommendations proceed without
will, as just indicated, have dramatic consequences on the an explicit reference to learner knowledge levels. Research is
characteristics of working memory. What, in turn, are the in- reviewed demonstrating that a large number of CLT effects
structional consequences? that can be used to recommend instructional designs are only
The article by van Merriënboer, Kirschner, and Kester ad- applicable to novices and can disappear and even reverse as a
dresses this issue by beginning with the premise that learners function of increasing expertise. Kalyuga et al. provide an
should be presented realistic tasks despite the fact that, when overview of this so-called expertise reversal effect by coordi-
dealing with complex areas, realistic tasks presented to nov- nating and unifying multiple empirical observations of the in-
ices with only limited schematic knowledge are likely to im- teractions between instructional techniques and levels of
pose a heavy cognitive load. Van Merriënboer et al. suggest learner expertise and show that the effect has a plausible theo-
two forms of scaffolding to take into account when consider- retical explanation within a cognitive load framework.
ing the alterations in cognitive load that occur with experi- Whereas the first three articles deal with issues tradition-
ence in a domain. The intrinsic aspects of cognitive load can ally considered by cognitive load theorists, Gerjets and
be reduced by the scaffold of simple-to-complex sequencing, Scheiter are concerned with procedures in which learners
whereas the extraneous aspects can be reduced by providing rather than instructors make instructional decisions. CLT
the substantial scaffolding of worked examples initially, fol- usually has assumed that instructors rather than novice learn-
lowed by completion problems and then full problems. (As ers should decide what should be studied and how it should be

studied. The worked example effect in which studying learning as a promising alternative to existing methods. They
worked examples can be superior to solving the equivalent argue that learners’ performance on a visual secondary reac-
problems provides the clearest example. Nevertheless, as the tion time task can be used as a direct measure of the cognitive
first three articles indicate, there now is strong evidence that, load induced by multimedia instruction. They summarize two
as levels of expertise increase, it is appropriate to decrease in- experiments that reproduced the modality effect in two differ-
structor control and increase learner control. Under these cir- ent multimedia learning environments as a cognitive load ef-
cumstances, Gerjets and Scheiter’s analysis with its emphasis fect, thereby demonstrating the feasibility of the dual-task
on learner control is timely. They criticize the fact that CLT approach. This approach may provide a viable alternative to
research typically assumes a one-to-one mapping between in- the most commonly used measure of cognitive load, subjec-
structional design and a resulting pattern of extraneous and tive task ratings.
germane cognitive loads without taking into account other The final article discusses the conceptual and practical
moderating variables, such as learner goals that interfere with issues associated with cognitive load measures. Paas,
this direct mapping. An extension to CLT is proposed along Tuovinen, Tabbers, and Van Gerven provide an overview
with the moderating factors of the configuration of teacher of the different operationalizations of cognitive load and
and learner goals and the learner’s processing strategies that their advantages and disadvantages. Because a valid mea-
are used to accomplish these goals. Data from four experi- surement of cognitive load is essential to the endeavor to
ments on hypertext instruction are summarized to support the further advance the empirical basis of cognitive load theory,
claim that CLT should take these factors into account when their review of recent developments of cognitive load mea-
making predictions for instructional material. surement is both important and timely. Finally, Paas et al.
In their article, Mayer and Moreno show why CLT pro- point out that assessing cognitive load is also helpful in the
vides a very fruitful perspective in the area of multimedia online adaptation of learning tasks in computer-based envi-
learning. All too often, learners in multimedia environments ronments.
experience cognitive overload when dealing with the com- In its ability to generate a large range of novel, the-
plexity of text and pictorial presentations. Five overload sce- ory-based instructional design procedures, CLT is
narios are described; more importantly, theory-based and unique. Furthermore, because the ability of any scientific
empirically proven solutions for each of these overload prob- theory to generate applications tends to validate the origi-
lems are offered. At the conclusion of their article, Mayer and nal theory, the existence of the applications generated by
Moreno suggest that techniques for measuring cognitive load CLT validates not only CLT but also many of the con-
are one of the most important issues that need to be addressed structs of cognitive psychology, such as schema construc-
by CLT if it is to continue to provide a robust framework for tion and the distinction between working and long-term
instructional design. The last two articles, by considering this memory. The articles in this special issue demonstrate
vital methodological issue, provide beacons to the future. that CLT is continuing its role of using cognitive psychol-
Brünken, Plass, and Leutner introduce a dual-task ap- ogy principles to generate novel instructional design pro-
proach to the measurement of cognitive load in multimedia cedures.

You might also like