Cognitive Load Theory: What We Learn and How We Learn

  • John SwellerEmail author
Living reference work entry


The information that humans acquire can be divided into two categories. One category, biologically primary knowledge, is largely generic in nature leading to generic cognitive skills. It is critically important, and so we have evolved to acquire such skills without explicit tuition or conscious thought. The other category, biologically secondary knowledge, is largely domain specific, leading to domain-specific concepts and skills. This category consists of cultural knowledge that we are able to acquire but without the specific acquisition mechanisms of primary knowledge. Biologically secondary knowledge is the subject of almost all teaching and learning in educational contexts. Because we have not evolved to specifically acquire this knowledge, it is best acquired with explicit instruction and conscious effort. Cognitive load theory uses evolutionary educational psychology to determine the cognitive processes needed to acquire biologically secondary knowledge and the instructional procedures that, in accord with those cognitive processes, best facilitate learning. This chapter describes the theory and some of the more recent instructional procedures developed using the theory.


Cognitive load theory Evolutionary educational psychology Cognitive processes and instructional design 


  1. Baddeley, A. (1999). Human memory. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.Google Scholar
  2. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewoods Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  3. Campbell, D. (1960). Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes. Psychol Rev, 67, 380–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive load theory and the format of instruction. Cogn Instr, 8, 293–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chen, O., Kalyuga, S., & Sweller, J. (2015). The worked example effect, the generation effect, and element interactivity. J Educ Psychol, 107, 689–704.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Darwin C (1871/2003) The descent of man. London: Gibson SquareGoogle Scholar
  7. Geary, D. (2005). The origin of mind: Evolution of brain, cognition, and general intelligence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Geary, D. (2007). Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology. In J. S. Carlson & J. R. Levin (Eds.), Psychological perspectives on contemporary educational issues (pp. 1–99). Greenwich: Information Age Publishing.Google Scholar
  9. Geary, D. (2008). An evolutionarily informed education science. Educ Psychol, 43, 179–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Geary, D. (2012). Evolutionary educational psychology. In K. Harris, S. Graham, & T. Urdan (Eds.), APA educational psychology handbook (Vol. 1, pp. 597–621). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  11. Hsu, C.-Y., Kalyuga, S., & Sweller, J. (2015). When should guidance be presented in physics instruction? Arch Sci Psychol, 3, 37–53.Google Scholar
  12. Jablonka, E., & Lamb, M. J. (2005). Evolution in four dimensions: Genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic variation in the history of life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  13. Kalyuga, S., Chandler, P., Tuovinen, J., & Sweller, J. (2001). When problem solving is superior to studying worked examples. J Educ Psychol, 93, 579–588.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). The expertise reversal effect. Educ Psychol, 38, 23–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential and inquiry-based teaching. Educ Psychol, 41, 75–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Klahr, D., & Nigam, M. (2004). The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: Effects of direct instruction and discovery learning. Psychol Sci, 15, 661–667.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Leahy, W., & Sweller, J. (2011). Cognitive load theory, modality of presentation and the transient information effect. Appl Cogn Psychol, 25, 943–951.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Mayer, R. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. Am Psychol, 59, 14–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychol Rev, 63, 81–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Mousavi, S. Y., Low, R., & Sweller, J. (1995). Reducing cognitive load by mixing auditory and visual presentation modes. J Educ Psychol, 87, 319–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Newell, A., & Simon, H. A. (1972). Human problem solving. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  22. Peterson, L., & Peterson, M. J. (1959). Short-term retention of individual verbal items. J Exp Psychol, 58, 193–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Pollock, E., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2002). Assimilating complex information. Learn Instr, 12, 61–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Popper, K. (1979). Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  25. Simon, H., & Gilmartin, K. (1973). A simulation of memory for chess positions. Cogn Psychol, 5, 29–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Slamecka, N., & Graf, P. (1978). The generation effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. J Exp Psychol Hum Learn Mem, 4, 592–604.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Sweller, J. (2003). Evolution of human cognitive architecture. In B. Ross (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 43, pp. 215–266). San Diego, CA: Academic.Google Scholar
  28. Sweller, J. (2010). Element interactivity and intrinsic, extraneous and germane cognitive load. Educ Psychol Rev, 22, 123–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Sweller, J. (2012). Human cognitive architecture: Why some instructional procedures work and others do not. In K. Harris, S. Graham, & T. Urdan (Eds.), APA educational psychology handbook (Vol. 1, pp. 295–325). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  30. Sweller, J., & Sweller, S. (2006). Natural information processing systems. Evol Psychol, 4, 434–458.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. J., & Paas, F. G. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educ Psychol Rev, 10, 251–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sweller, J., Ayres, P., & Kalyuga, S. (2011). Cognitive load theory. New York, NY: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educ Psychol Rev, 26, 265–283. doi:10.1007/s10648-013-9243-1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. West-Eberhard, M. (2003). Developmental plasticity and evolution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Wong, A., Leahy, W., Marcus, N., & Sweller, J. (2012). Cognitive load theory, the transient information effect and e-learning. Learn Instr, 22, 449–457. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2012.05.004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Youssef-Shalala, A., Ayres, P., Schubert, C., & Sweller, J. (2014). Using a general problem-solving strategy to promote transfer. J Exp Psychol Appl, 20, 215–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationUniversity of New South WalesSydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations