About Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive load theory (e.g. Sweller, 1988; 1994) provides an approach to Instructional Design based upon designing learning resources and activities according to the organisation and functionality of human cognitive architecture.

Cognitive load theory (CLT)  provides practical, evidence based directions on how best to engineer instructional design for specified to-be-learnt information to be received by specified cohorts of learners.

CLT describes learning in terms of an information processing system involving long term memory, which effectively stores all of our knowledge and skills on a more-or-less permanent basis and working memory, which performs the intellectual tasks associated with thinking and consciousness.

Information may only be stored into long term memory after first being attended to, and processed by, working memory. Working memory, however, is extremely limited in both capacity and duration. These limitations will, under some conditions, impede learning.

The fundamental tenet of CLT is that the quality of instructional design will be raised if greater consideration is given to the role and limitations of working memory. Since its conception in the early 1980's, CLT has been used to develop several instructional strategies which have been demonstrated empirically to be superior to those used conventionally.

Instructional designs taking account of human cognitive architecture, and designing accordingly, facilitate learning as measured by efficiency, longevity of recall, breadth of application, and speed of error-free performance.

About the information library

The CAFE information library outlines some of the basic principles of cognitive load theory. Some of the content provided in the knowledge base is reproduced and/or modified from an original web resource originally located at dwb4.unl.edu/Diss/Cooper/UNSW.htm.

This version of the CAFE Toolkit Information Library is copyright © 2016, Dr. Graham Cooper and Dr. Raina Mason, School of Business and Tourism, Southern Cross University, Australia.

Examples of the instructional design strategies generated by CLT are also provided.

Next:  Cognitive architecture


Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257–285.

Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design. Learning and Instruction, 4(4), 295–312. http://doi.org/10.1016/0959-4752(94)90003-5