Free cognitive load theory resources

There are a lots of free articles and other cognitive load theory resources available to teachers who do not have access to research papers, not least the video above in which John Sweller talks about the theory at researchED Melbourne.

I thought it would be a good idea to try and make a list of these resources and I intend to update this over time. I haven’t included blog posts because there are too many.

What is it?

If you want a general overview of cognitive load theory there are a number of places to go. I wrote a piece for The Conversation that gives a very basic summary. John Sweller has written an article that discusses the development of the theory and it is a good place to go to see a brief summary of all of the cognitive load theory effect. The Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, part of the government of New South Wales, has taken up the cause of cognitive load theory with determination. They have produced an overview which they have turned into an audio recording and they have recently released a report on putting cognitive load theory into action. All three resources are available here.

The Times Educational Supplement asked John Sweller to write an article last year. It is paywalled but you can login using your Facebook account.

Human cognitive architecture

If you want to delve a little deeper then cognitive load theory has some interesting things to say about human cognitive architecture and how it evolved. When I first read about cognitive load theory, I saw the limitation of working memory as a design flaw. I now understand it as a design feature.

This understanding comes from a deeper dive into how the mind functions – human cognitive architecture. Through the thesis writing process for my PhD, I recently discovered that the Sweller and Sweller paper on the evolutionary basis of the theory is not paywalled. This provides a good summary of biologically primary and secondary knowledge as well as other explanatory features of the model.

Implications for teaching

I first encountered cognitive load theory due to the paper Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. This paper, by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, argues that many fashionable approaches to teaching are at odds with cognitive load theory. It also popularised Paul Kirschner’s definition of learning as a change in long-term memory.

This paper was not well-liked by supporters of the teaching methods that it criticised. Three rebuttal papers were written (here, here and here) and the authors then responded to these rebuttals. Eventually, the controversy led to a conference and then a book.

The same three authors also wrote an accessible piece about the idea that teaching general problem solving skills is no substitute for teaching maths. This has wider implications for other subjects and for other posited generic skills.

Update January 2019 – Sweller, van Merrienboer and Pass have just released this open-access overview of Cognitive Load Theory

Update July 2019 – ACER’ Teacher magazine have conducted an interview with Sweller that outlines the basic ideas.

Update August 2019 – Teacher magazine have followed this up with a useful article about some of the effects.

Update September 2020 – Paas and van Merriënboer have written an open access paper for Current Directions in Psychological Science that summarises many of the main findings.


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