In 1988, John Sweller proposed the Cognitive Load Theory, and discussed the effect of cognitive load on learning.  He had based his work on George Miller’s 7 plus or minus 2 rule, which states that short term memory has certain limits.

According to John Sweller, there are three types of cognitive loads, or working memory resources that must be allocated for the process of learning.

He named these as:

  • Extraneous Load
  • Germane Load
  • Intrinsic Load

Extraneous Load

It’s important to understand that Extraneous Load results from mistakes in presenting content and distractions in the environment. It can and should be eliminated.

An example of Extraneous Load is putting a diagram and its explanation on either side of the same sheet of paper. The learner must keep turning the page to map the explanation with the diagram, which will require that he keeps the image of the diagram (or part of the diagram) in his working memory (thus, uses his working memory resources) until he turns the page to read the explanation.

Germane Load

Germane Load “carries” the content into the learner’s mind (forms a bridge between the short-term memory and the long-term memory.) This load is relevant, but it should be used to maximize learning efficiency. Thus, coming up with the right kind of activities to ensure that the learner develops a competency at the correct Bloom’s Level, would amount to using the Germane load efficiently.

Intrinsic Load

Intrinsic Load is the characteristic load of the content. This load is inherent in the subject being taught. Some subjects require less cognitive processing and are easier to handle than others. For instance, arithmetic is simpler than Integral Calculus and hence it has a lower intrinsic load.

The following image provides a brief description of the three kinds of loads and what an instructional designer must do with each of these.

John Sweller's Cognitive Load Theory - Three Types of Cognitive Loads

Cognitive Load Theory helps us identify the three loads and use them judiciously so that we create and present content in a way that it becomes simpler for the learner to assimilate and retain.