Educational Psychology Review

, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 831–852 | Cite as

Rethinking the Boundaries of Cognitive Load Theory in Complex Learning

  • Slava Kalyuga
  • Anne-Marie Singh
Reflection on the Field


In the traditional framework of cognitive load theory, it is assumed that the acquisition of domain-specific knowledge structures (or schemas) is the only instructional goal, and therefore, the theory is applicable to any instructional task. Accordingly, the basic concepts of intrinsic (productive) and extraneous (unproductive) types of cognitive load were defined based on the relevance (or irrelevance) of the corresponding cognitive processes that impose the load to achieving this universal instructional goal, and the instructional methods advocated by this theory are aimed at enhancing the acquisition of domain-specific schemas. The paper suggests considering this goal within the whole variety of possible specific goals of different learner activities that could be involved in complex learning. This would result in narrowing down of boundaries of cognitive load theory and have implications for distinguishing types of cognitive load, sequencing different goals and instructional tasks, considering the role of learner expertise, and other aspects of complex learning. One of the consequences of this reconceptualization is abandoning the rigid explicit instruction versus minimal guidance dichotomy and replacing it with a more flexible approach based on differentiating specific goals of various learner activities in complex learning. In particular, it may allow reconciling seemingly contradictory results from studies of the effectiveness of worked examples in cognitive load theory (supporting the initial fully guided explicit instruction for novice learners) and studies within the frameworks of productive failure and invention learning that have reportedly demonstrated that minimally guided tasks provided prior to explicit instruction might benefit novice learners.


Cognitive load theory Instructional guidance Instructional goals Explicit instruction Initial problem solving Expertise reversal effect 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationUniversity of New South WalesSydneyAustralia

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