Cognitive load theory is one of the lenses I use to design instruction. More than just an abstract idea, cognitive load theory recommends instructional procedures based on what we know about how the mind works. I wanted to share with you a few of the ways that my thinking, and by extension, my teaching, has been influenced by cognitive load theory.

Teaching sequence

What I used to think. Teaching should begin with giving students whole tasks or open-ended problems to solve. As students grapple with the material, teachers should support students through brief individual or small group conferences.

What I now think. Teaching should be a process of “gradual release” beginning with I do, followed by We do, and ending with You do. A scaffolded approach helps keep the cognitive load at an optimal level and leads to successful learning.

Definition of Learning

What I used to think. Learning is activity. If students have been engaged for extended periods of time in a rich activity, learning has likely taken place.

What I now think. Learning is a change in long-term memory. If a student’s capabilities or understandings haven’t improved in some way, nothing has been learned.

Nature of learning

What I used to think. Most learning is the result of personal discoveries. All learning should be as playful and effortless as learning to speak one’s first language.

What I now think. Most learning is the result of borrowing from other people. Most academic knowledge requires effort to acquire, while other knowledge, like learning one’s first language, is effortless.

Knowledge vs. Skills

What I used to think. Thinking skills, such as problem solving and critical thinking, should be emphasized over knowledge retention.

What I now think. Knowledge is the driver of all thinking skills. Problem solving and critical thinking will be unsuccessful without knowledge in long-term memory.

Novices vs. Experts

What I used to think. All students are experts if we choose to see them that way. The best way to grow expertise is to design experiences that mimic the work of experts in the real world.

What I now think. Whenever a student is learning something new (i.e., a novice), they require examples, models, and guided practice. Giving students tasks fit for experts won’t work until they’ve developed sufficient expertise.

Role of Teacher Explanations

What I used to think. Teachers should minimize their talk as much as possible to give way for student voice. Because explanations should only be used as a last resort, it’s quite normal if they’re spontaneous and unplanned.

What I now think. Teacher explanations support students through the initial stages of knowledge acquisition. We should pay careful attention to how we design our explanations so that they do not overload students.

Learning Environment

What I used to think. Noisy, messy learning environments simulate the “real world” and train students to multitask and problem solve. Quiet is a sign of compliance and passive learning.

What I now think. Noisy, messy learning environments can feel overwhelming and distract students from what they’re learning about. A calm, structured learning environment is what students need to be successful.

Interested in reading more? See my other posts about this topic:
A Weird but Popular Way to Teach Problem Solving
Solving Problems is an Inefficient Way to Learn How to Solve Problems
A Fence at the Top or an Ambulance at the Bottom?
Demystifying Learning through Examples
Why the Genius Hour Fad Died

26 thoughts on “How Cognitive Load Theory Changed My Teaching

  1. This is how I taught for 37 years. I retired 10 years ago. At that time, everything was becoming problem based. Defining and teaching skills became less and less important. I saw a significant drop in what students could retain and master.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing this excellent post. It helped me realize my evolution as a teacher has been very close to yours.
    To be honest, I find your article so interesting that I would like to translate it in French for a magazine called « Résonance » which is a non-profit Swiss magazine sent to teachers in the Valais. Of course, I woud not be paid for my work.

    For more details about the magazine :

    In short, I would like your agreement to translate your post.

    Best regards

    Frédéric Debons

    My school :
    ECCG Martigny
    Rue des Bonnes Luites 8
    1920 Martigny
    CH – Switzerland


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