ABSTRACT: Cognitive Load Theory: implications for medical education: AMEE Guide No. 86
Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) builds upon established models of human memory that include the subsystems of sensory, working and long-term memory. Working memory (WM) can only process a limited number of information elements at any given time. This constraint creates a “bottleneck” for learning. CLT identifies three types of cognitive load that impact WM: intrinsic load (associated with performing essential aspects of the task), extraneous load (associated with non-essential aspects of the task) and germane load (associated with the deliberate use of cognitive strategies that facilitate learning). When the cognitive load associated with a task exceeds the learner’s WM capacity, performance and learning is impaired. To facilitate learning, CLT researchers have developed instructional techniques that decrease extraneous load (e.g. worked examples), titrate intrinsic load to the developmental stage of the learner (e.g. simplify task without decontextualizing) and ensure that unused WM capacity is dedicated to germane load, i.e. cognitive learning strategies. A number of instructional techniques have been empirically tested. As learners’ progress, curricula must also attend to the expertise-reversal effect. Instructional techniques that facilitate learning among early learners may not help and may even interfere with learning among more advanced learners. CLT has particular relevance to medical education because many of the professional activities to be learned require the simultaneous integration of multiple and varied sets of knowledge, skills and behaviors at a specific time and place. These activities possess high “element interactivity” and therefore impose a cognitive load that may surpass the WM capacity of the learner. Applications to various medical education settings (classroom, workplace and self-directed learning) are explored.