Cognitive load theory in the primary classroom

Written by: Steve Garnett | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What is cognitive load theory and how can it help teachers in the classroom and with their pedagogy? Steve Garnett, author of a new teacher’s handbook on cognitive load theory, offers some practical pointers


One of the biggest challenges facing education researchers has been how to translate their research findings into a form that allows busy classroom teachers to apply them into their day-to-day teaching.

Well, this is what I have tried to do in my new book, Cognitive Load Theory: A handbook for teachers. Below I run through some key takeaways for the primary school teacher looking to embed some of the principles of cognitive load theory (CLT).

First put forward by educational psychologist John Sweller, CLT is based on the premise that our “working memory” can only deal with a limited amount of information at any one time and that overworking this can cause “cognitive overload”. To frame the principles below, it is useful to see CLT through three different “lenses” – the pupil, the task, and the resources used.


The pupil

Novice learners? If you are a classroom teacher and you know that that day’s lesson represents completely new content for the pupils, then the ideas behind CLT are highly relevant, indeed, crucial to the chances of learning being successful. However, if the content of that day’s lesson is more about consolidation and is more about applying previously learnt material, then the principles behind CLT are much less relevant.

The reason is that CLT is most relevant when a pupil is in effect a “novice” learner. All pupils are novices if the lesson content is new.

Imagine a bottleneck: For anyone who is a novice learner, then the working memory has a limited capacity to process information. The working memory is located at the front of the brain and attends to new learning first. Visualise it as a bottleneck. Too much information too soon means a lot will not get to its destination. So, remember to “chunk” instructions into smaller “bite-size” bits. A good analogy relates to how we caution against eating too much too quickly. Better to eat in smaller chunks, digest it, then repeat so you are ready to eat some more. “Less is more” really is a useful mantra to adopt when teaching the novice learner as this will help to ensure that you do not overload working memory.

Small steps: Adopt a small steps approach to teaching new content or methods. Due to limitations in working memory capacity, the teacher must make adjustments when teaching new content or new skills/methods. A fabulous example of this can be found from watching Dr Fred Jones demonstrating how to teach maths to the novice learner (2009). He promotes the concept of VIP – Visual Instructional Plans. He argues that new teaching is more effective if teachers create “a picture for every step” and the teacher should check that the pupils understand each step before they are allowed to proceed on to the next one. So, if the teacher was showing pupils how to calculate the area of a rectangle they would break down the method into the various steps:

  • Step 1: Write down formula.
  • Step 2: Measure length.
  • Step 3: Measure width.
  • Step 4: Multiply L by W.
  • Step 5: Answer in square units.

Movement: CLT researchers have demonstrated how limitations in working memory can be overcome by utilising physical movement (Sepp et al, 2019). They quote examples of pupils learning rope knots or paper folding activities. They were able to show that it was easier to remember what to do if the pupils physically attempted the technique as they were being taught it for the first time, rather than just watching and listening to someone demonstrating the techniques first and then attempting to replicate them afterwards.

Other physical movements to ease the load on working memory could be to use finger counting. The fact that your fingers “hold” the relevant information means that you do not have to rely on your working memory to recall the number.

The role of tracing too can be a physical movement that eases working memory load. Pupils were asked to physically trace parallel lines and angles on some worked examples in a maths lesson. The group who did the tracing performed better on subsequent tests than the control group who did not (given all other things being “equal”).


The task

Worked examples: One of the oldest CLT techniques to have been shown to reduce load on working memory is the worked example. Teachers may be more familiar with the acronym “WAGOLL” – What a Good One Looks Like. For the novice learner, they are well served by seeing a worked example rather than trying to hold in their heads all the various elements required and still attempt to solve the problem. Free-up working memory resources so that the pupil can concentrate on solving the problem rather than remembering what is needed in the answer as well as working out the answer.

Faded scaffolding: As pupil expertise grows and they become increasingly familiar with the essential component parts within an answer, it is important that teachers start to reduce the amount of detail included in the worked examples. Put simply, this requires a gradual change to offering only partly completed worked examples or offering a range of worked examples that show different versions of the same type of answer. This is an example of what is described as “faded scaffolding”.


Resources used

‘Noise’ reduction: The novice learner can have valuable working memory resources taken up with too much extraneous visual “noise” present within a resource. A classic example is a resource that is now being popularised as a “knowledge organiser”. Examples of knowledge organisers that carry too much visual noise are those that include:

  • Use of text boxes.
  • Use of boxes filled with different colours where the colour carries no meaning i.e. not colour-coded to a theme.
  • Use of numbers where there is no significance or relevance to the number or amount.

Consider the resource pictured below. There is too much detail for the novice (note that this resource would be perfect towards the end of this topic when pupils gain fluency in understanding, but not at the beginning).


At the risk of sounding like someone who has just cancelled Christmas, it is still possible for a teacher to allow their creative juices to flow but they should follow some of these guidelines in order to reduce the amount of visual noise. For example, if we are to change the resource above to one that does not overload working memory, we might consider the following principles and it might look like the image below:

  • Use icons to promote visual clues to support understanding and recall.
  • Think alignment and columns and order rather than randomised arrangements.
  • Stick to two fonts maximum.
  • Use of lots of white space.


Other techniques that are useful include integrating all labels next to the image rather than requiring the eye to move too far around the page to link the text/label with the appropriate visual feature. See the two versions of the violin image below. You can see which one would require more working memory resources in trying to decide where each label goes.


Conclusion

Of course, the above only scratches the surface of what is involved within CLT. I have consciously avoided making specific links to the instructional techniques that the CLT researchers have been working on since the late 1980s. They give names to instructional approaches that have some kind of effect on working memory. Some techniques can in effect “cheat” working memory limits such as the “Human Movement effect”, “Isolated Elements effect” and the “Worked Example effect”.

There are other instructional approaches that the teacher should guard against such as the “Element Interactivity effect” or too much extraneous load more generally. All the suggestions above reference these effects. For those readers keen to explore the detail some more, see the references listed in my book Cognitive Load Theory: A handbook for teachers.


  • Steve Garnett has been a teacher for 30 years in roles that have included classroom teacher, head of department and deputy head. He now delivers teaching and learning training to teachers across the world. Find him @Garnett_S


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