Cognitive Load Theory

John Sweller’s influential research around how the human brain processes and stores information is instrumental in not only how we teach at John Willmott School; but also our understanding of how to sequence the delivery of knowledge across our curriculum.

We know that the working memory is limited, capable of holding around 5 pieces of information for a short period of time; if that information is not returned to and rehearsed, it is lost. The working memory is vulnerable to ‘overload’ if it is required to process too much information at any time. At John Willmott School we have devoted a great deal of time to ensuring that our staff and our students understand how we effectively transfer knowledge from the working memory to the long term memory and the significance of this on learning.

There are 3 distinct areas within Cognitive Load which are crucial to our understanding of:

  1. How students process information
  2. Their barriers to retaining information
  3. The organisation of their long term memories in developing schemas of understanding.

Intrinsic: This is essentially the aspects of the curriculum which are being delivered. Whilst we can’t change the knowledge the students need to know in order to succeed, we can effectively manage it in a number of ways, such as using Knowledge Organisers; sequencing the curriculum carefully; embedded retrieval practice and explicitly teaching key vocabulary.

Extraneous: This refers to any distracting influences around how information is delivered and we have taken a lot of time to consider how to minimise this for our students to avoid ‘cognitive overload’. Staff use a variety of strategies including: dual coding to verbally explain complex processes and concepts; avoiding talking over students reading explanative material and a laser sharp focus on what needs to be known and taught and what is superfluous.

Germane: This refers to the work or effort that our students exert in order to develop long-lasting knowledge, or schemas. It is crucial that through our EEE Teaching and Learning model we seek to maximise this at every phase of learning. The more students are required to academically think about a concept, the more likely they are to remember it. We promote teaching techniques such as ‘Thinking Maps’; skilful  questioning and ‘Thinking Hard’ strategies with our staff in order to promote stage appropriate challenge for each of our students.

By having a thorough understanding of how students learn we are in a position ensure that we plan and teach in a way which promotes life long learning and the academic curiosity to acquire and apply knowledge.

Click here to view the PIXL Cognitive Load Leaflet