Although quite old, John Sweller’s cognitive load theory it is considered by many to be a revolutionary theoretical model, because it confronts the idea that the more one learns at a time, the better.
The basic idea of this model is that our short-term memory has a limited capacity, which conditions the way we learn. When it comes to new knowledge, first we have to acquire it properly, then we will be able to perform all kinds of high cognitive processes.
In his theory, he talks about how working memory and long-term memory interact with new knowledge, and how these, if assimilated, turn into what he calls “patterns.” . Let’s see below.
What is the cognitive load theory?
The cognitive load theory, formulated by John Sweller in 1988, is a theoretical model that suggests that learning is more optimal when its conditions are aligned with the human cognitive architecture. The basic idea of this theory is that when we have to learn something new, we cannot ask our brain to familiarize itself with this new knowledge and to do other cognitively demanding processes, but we have to take it step by step. step. We must first incorporate this new knowledge, become familiar with it and then, once internalized, we can analyze it in more depth.
This theory explains that our working memory has a limited capacity. This limited capacity is cognitive load, which is the amount of information our brain can store at the same time for immediate use.
As our working memory is rather reduced, cognitive load theory argues that teaching methods should avoid overloading this memory with additional activities that do not directly contribute to learning. John Sweller argues that, during instructional design, (this is when developing instructional experiences to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and skills in an educational context) we need to think about how to teach the contents in such a way as to reduce the cognitive load of the pupils. If you are crushing your working memory by overloading it with many tasks at once, you can’t expect them to complete the task after figuring out the whole agenda or doing a quality learning job.
Working memory and long-term memory
Human memory can be divided into several categories, two of which are working memory and long term memory. Working memory is what we use when we perform a task, in which we temporarily store the information we are working with immediately. In contrast, long-term memory is a memory made up of well-established knowledge, that is, it is what we remember relatively well after a long period of time.
When we study or learn to do something, new knowledge comes through working memory. Conscious processing of new information involves a certain cognitive load on working memory. Depending on how many times we have reviewed it or if we have understood it correctly, this new information will be stored in long-term memory in the form of diagrams, but only if this information has been correctly processed.
As we mentioned, working memory is limited. If you are cognitively overloaded, that is, trying to learn a lot of things at once or trying to do several very complex cognitive processes at the same time, information cannot be processed efficiently because we do not have sufficient resources to assimilate everything correctly. The more we have to learn at the same time, the more our processing of the new information will be deficient.
This does not mean that there is no one who can learn several things at the same time. Whether it’s because they have more capacity to process more cognitive load or just because they put in a lot of effort, there are people who can really learn something by doing multiple activities or studying different things at home. that time. But despite this, most people, when they have to learn a lot of things at once and don’t understand any of them, they end up being frustrating, overwhelming and their performance is lower than desired.
In his theory, Sweller speaks of “patterns”, which they are combinations of different elements that function as the most basic cognitive structures that form an individual’s knowledge. John Sweller formulated this idea as a result of George Miller’s information processing research, in which he showed that short-term memory is limited in terms of the number of items it can consciously hold and be analyzed simultaneously.
In his theory, Sweller considers that these diagrams, which would be the content of long-term memory, are sophisticated structures which they allow us to perceive, think and solve problems instead of a group of random or more or less related data learned by heart and detached. Thanks to these patterns, we can use several elements as one and allow us to perform all kinds of complex cognitive processes once this information is well established in our memory.
Acquiring new patterns and their gradual sophistication is something that happens throughout life because we never stop learning. In fact, these same schematics may contain other schematics within them in a manner similar to matryoshka dolls. Thus, several of these knowledge structures can be assembled into one, allowing with experience and subsequent greater mastery to deal with several concepts at once, assuming less cognitive load through greater mastery.
In fact, is the degree of mastery of certain knowledge and their “materialization” in mental patterns that can be differentiated between an expert and a novice. The novice has not yet acquired the patterns of a certain knowledge, that is, he has not yet learned them, while the expert has already established them well. The expert can compare and analyze them in depth with relatively little effort, the novice cannot do these mental processes without investing a lot of energy and cognitive resources, because he does not yet master them and has to make a big effort to simply understand the ‘ls.
Example of cognitive overload
To better understand what cognitive load theory says let’s see an example in which two cases are presented, One with cognitive overload and another in which we know how to avoid this situation, which could perfectly be given in any classroom of any institute.
Imagine that we are in a philosophy class. The teacher explains at the start of the course that one of the objectives of the course is for students to be able to critically examine various philosophical systems, having an in-depth view of the history of Western philosophy by the end of the course and having had the possibility. to discover the main currents of thought of classical Greece in the 21st century.
At the start of the course, the teacher tells his students that they should start by analyzing the theories of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, authors they will find already explained in the book. The teacher tells them that he is not going to explain them in detail in class because he considers them to be so famous that he expects his students to understand them for themselves. the teacher encourages his students to be responsible for their own learning, Get to know these philosophers while analyzing and comparing them.
However, the teacher overestimated the knowledge and abilities of his students. He thinks that students will be able to quickly analyze the theories of these three philosophers because this assumes that they already have their very internalized currents of thought, even if this is not the case. The students, not mastering the philosophy of these three thinkers, are faced with a truly titanic task and, moreover, do not know how to study them very well.
To begin with, the authors’ three subjects are read without devoting the proper study to them, as the professor insisted that they be compared to these three philosophers, not that they be taught. Therefore, students read the three topics and try to make a comparison table with the three, With the problem that at the end of the reading makes them feel like they have read the exact same thing, have not understood anything and have to go over and over again to see the similarities and differences that they find . The problem is that to compare them to the three philosophers, you must first know them.
The overload occurs because in the working memory of these students we have to learn, or at least know, the life, work and philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle while trying to make a process as complex as to make them compare. They cannot because to begin the first step, which is to have created a complex diagram for each of these three authors, they did not do it and cannot compare anything under the conditions.
The teacher begins the course by explaining the philosophy of Socrates, mentioning all of his life, work and thought, making sure that the students have learned about him and that they prove it by doing a work on the life of this philosopher. In the next two topics the same will be done, but explaining to Plato and Aristotle. Once seen and understood the three philosophers knowing their life, their work and especially their points of view come time to compare them.
Learning the philosophy of each of the three was the first step, which was to create a mind map. As they progressed through the program, students internalized the postulates of the three classical philosophers, having a mental schema for each of them. At first, as they learned about Plato’s life, this new knowledge was in working memory, which involved a certain cognitive load. However, since this load was relatively small and easy to manage, they were able to process it and pass it on to long-term memory.
Now that the students know the philosophy of the three philosophers, they can easily compare it. Unlike case 1, in this case the comparison involves less cognitive load since they dominate the thought of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, now being the cognitively demanding task of putting them together and comparing them, and not learning them like that. is already done. .
Implications of cognitive load theory
Every teacher wants their students to learn complex ideas and know how to use them thoughtfully and creatively, in fact, that is the purpose of education. However, teachers should be aware that everything takes their time and that to perform a cognitively high task such as problem solving and deep thinking. you must first know what to analyze.
It is necessary to start from the most elementary definitions and ideas, move progressively to the more complex ones, develop along the way diagrams which, once well established, can be analyzed and compared.
Cognitive load theory provides a general framework for how learning should be encouraged and has many implications when designing educational programs. Those responsible for the organization of educational content, whether teachers, psychoeducators or any other professional in the educational sciences, should bear in mind that the student must first become familiar with with new content. New knowledge needs to be structured and, once well developed and established, we need to move on to more complex cognitive processes such as reflective and deep analysis.
The cognitive load theory supports explicit teaching modelsSince these patterns tend to be in sync with how the human brain learns more efficiently. In explicit models of instruction, the teacher shows students very clearly what to do, how to do it, and what steps to take, instead of waiting for students to figure out the steps for themselves. follow what they actively discover new information.
Naturally, these models have their criticism points, such as leaving aside the fact that students can take an active role in their own learning, discover for themselves and use creativity and inventiveness to find new solutions to all types. of problems. However, it is true that there are certain subjects and lessons in which it is best to reduce learning to smaller, more digestible stages to facilitate its acquisition.
Knowledge and critical thinking
One of the most interesting aspects of the theory is that you have to “know things” first and then you can think about them critically. Information can be processed by performing two processes: knowledge acquisition and problem solving. Both of these processes are essential for learning, however must be done separately so as not to overload our working memory and to avoid bad processing of information.
Sweller’s model is critical of teaching in which learning is misused by problem solving, especially if one has not already learned or is not familiar with the topic related to the problem to be solved.
It is common for the acquisition of knowledge and the solving of a certain problem to end up overlapping in this style of teaching, resulting in the student not learning or knowing how to solve the problem at hand. .
Problem solving is done in a large bandwidth, To put it bluntly. What we mean by this is that solving a problem involves a high cognitive load, a load that will have to compete with another load of acquiring new knowledge if it has not been. learned. If some patterns have not been acquired, it is very difficult to perform complex processes with them.
- Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. and Paas, F. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Journal of Educational Psychology, 10, 251-296.
- Sweller, J. (2003) Evolution of Human Cognitive Architecture, in the Psychology of Learning and Motivation, volume 43. Brian Ross (eds.). San Diego: academic press.