Educational Psychology Review

, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 31–42

A Cognitive Load Approach to Collaborative Learning: United Brains for Complex Tasks

Review Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10648-008-9095-2

Cite this article as:
Kirschner, F., Paas, F. & Kirschner, P.A. Educ Psychol Rev (2009) 21: 31. doi:10.1007/s10648-008-9095-2


This article presents a review of research comparing the effectiveness of individual learning environments with collaborative learning environments. In reviewing the literature, it was determined that there is no clear and unequivocal picture of how, when, and why the effectiveness of these two approaches to learning differ, a result which may be due to differing complexities of the learning tasks used in the research and the concomitant load imposed on the learner’s cognitive system. Based upon cognitive load theory, it is argued that learning by an individual becomes less effective and efficient than learning by a group of individuals as task complexity increases. Dividing the processing of information across individuals is useful when the cognitive load is high because it allows information to be divided across a larger reservoir of cognitive capacity. Although such division requires that information be recombined and that processing be coordinated, under high load conditions, these costs are minimal compared to the gain achieved by this division of labor. In contrast, under low load conditions, an individual can adequately carry out the required processing activities, and the costs of recombination and coordination are relatively more substantial. Implications of these ideas for research and practice of collaborative learning are discussed.


Collaborative learningCognitive loadTask complexityBrain science

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Femke Kirschner
    • 1
  • Fred Paas
    • 1
  • Paul A. Kirschner
    • 2
  1. 1.Centre for Learning Sciences and Technologies (CELSTEC)Open University of The NetherlandsHeerlenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Netherlands Laboratory for Lifelong Learning/Department of PsychologyOpen University of The NetherlandsHeerlenThe Netherlands