John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory

John Sweller's cognitive load theory

Although quite old, John Sweller’s cognitive load theory It is considered by many to be a revolutionary theoretical model, since it confronts the idea that the more we learn at once, the better.

The basic idea of ​​this model is that our short-term memory has a limited capacity, which conditions our way of learning. When faced with new knowledge, we must first acquire it properly and then we will be able to carry out all types of high cognitive processes.

His theory talks about how working and long-term memory interact in relation to new knowledge, and how this, if assimilated, is transformed into something that he called “schemas”. Let’s see it below.

What is cognitive load theory?

The theory of cognitive load, formulated by John Sweller in 1988, is a theoretical model that suggests that learning is most optimal when learning conditions are aligned with human cognitive architecture The basic idea of ​​this theory is that when we have to learn something new, we cannot ask our brain to familiarize itself with this new knowledge and do other cognitively demanding processes, but rather we must go step by step. First we must incorporate this new knowledge, become familiar with it and then, once internalized, we can analyze it further.

This theory explains that our working memory has a limited capacity This limited capacity is cognitive load, which is the amount of information our brain can store at one time for immediate use.

As our working memory is rather reduced, cognitive load theory maintains that teaching methods should avoid overloading this memory with additional activities that do not directly contribute to learning. John Sweller maintains that, during instructional design, (this is when developing instructional experiences to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and skills in an educational context) You should think about how to teach the content in a way that reduces the cognitive load on students If their working memory is oversaturated by overloading it with many tasks at the same time, they cannot be expected to complete the task having understood the entire syllabus or having completed quality learning.

Working memory and long-term memory

Human memory can be divided into several categories, two of which are working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is what we use when we are carrying out any task, in which we temporarily store the information with which we are working immediately. On the other hand, long-term memory is that made up of well-established knowledge, that is, it is what we remember relatively well after a long period of time.

When we are studying or learning to do something, new knowledge passes through working memory The conscious processing of new information implies a certain cognitive load on working memory. Depending on how many times we have reviewed it or if we have understood it well, this new information will be stored in long-term memory in the form of schemas, but only if this information has been properly processed.

As we mentioned, working memory is limited. If it is cognitively overloaded, that is, you are trying to learn many things at the same time or you are trying to do several very complex cognitive processes at the same time, we cannot process information efficiently since we do not have enough resources to assimilate everything properly. The more things we have to learn at once, the poorer our processing of novel information will be.

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This does not mean that there are not people who can learn several things at the same time. Whether because they have a greater capacity to process a greater cognitive load or simply because they try very hard, there are people who can really learn something by doing several activities or studying different things at the same time. But despite this, most people, when they have to learn many things at the same time and do not understand any of them, They end up getting frustrated, overwhelmed and their performance is lower than desired

The schemes

Within his theory Sweller talks about “schemas”, which They are combinations of different elements that function as the most basic cognitive structures that form an individual’s knowledge John Sweller formulated this idea after learning about George Miller’s information processing research, in which he showed that short-term memory was limited in the number of elements it can consciously contain and be analyzed simultaneously.

In his theory Sweller considers that these schemes, which would be the contents of long-term memory, are sophisticated structures that They allow us to perceive, think and solve problems instead of a group of random or more or less related data learned by heart and disconnectedly Thanks to these schemes we can manage multiple elements as one and they allow us to carry out all types of complex cognitive processes once this information is well established in our memory.

The acquisition of new schemes and their progressive sophistication is something that happens throughout life, since we never stop learning. In fact, these same schemas can contain within them other schemas in a similar way to how matryoshka dolls do. Thus, several of these knowledge structures can be assembled into one, allowing with experience and greater subsequent mastery to handle several concepts at the same time, assuming a lower cognitive load thanks to having greater mastery.

In fact, It is the degree of mastery of certain knowledge and its “materialization” in mental schemes that we can differentiate between an expert and a novice The novice has not yet acquired the schemes of a certain knowledge, that is, he still has to learn them, while the expert already has them well established. The expert can compare and analyze them in depth with relatively little effort, the novice cannot do these mental processes without investing great energy and cognitive resources, since he has not yet mastered them and needs to make a great effort to even understand them.

Example of cognitive overload

To better understand what cognitive load theory says Let’s see an example in which two cases are presented one with cognitive overload and another in which we know how to avoid this situation, which could perfectly occur in any classroom at any institute.

Let’s imagine that we are in a philosophy class. The teacher explains at the beginning of the course that one of the objectives of the subject is for students to be able to critically examine various philosophical systems, having an extensive vision of the history of Western philosophy by the time the course ends and having had the possibility of learn about the main currents of thought from classical Greece to the 21st century.

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Case 1

As soon as the course begins, the teacher tells his students that they must begin by analyzing the theories of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, authors who will find already explained in the book. The teacher tells them that he is not going to explain them in much detail in class because he considers that they are so famous that he expects his students to understand them on their own. The teacher encourages students to be responsible for their own learning learning about these philosophers while analyzing and comparing them.

However, the teacher has overestimated the knowledge and ability of his students. He thinks that students will be able to quickly analyze the theories of these three philosophers because he assumes that they have already internalized their currents of thought, although this is not the case. The students, since they do not master the philosophy of these three thinkers, are faced with a truly titanic task and, furthermore, they do not know very well how to study them.

To begin with, the authors’ three themes are read without dedicating adequate study to them, since the teacher has insisted that they compare these three philosophers, not that they learn them. As a result of that, Students read the three topics and try to make a comparative table with the three, with the problem that at the end of the reading they feel that they have read exactly the same thing, they have not understood anything and they have to review and review to see what similarities and differences they find. The problem is that in order to compare the three philosophers, we must first know them.

The overload occurs because in the working memory of these students we have to learn, or minimally know, the life, work and philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle while, at the same time, they try to carry out a process as complex as it is. compare them. They cannot because to begin the first step, which is to have created a complex outline for each of these three authors, they have not done so and cannot compare anything under conditions.

Case 2

The teacher begins the class by explaining the philosophy of Socrates, mentioning his entire life, work and thought, making sure that the students have learned about him and that they demonstrate this by doing a work on the life of this philosopher. In the next two topics the same will be done, but explaining Plato and Aristotle. Once we have seen and understood the three philosophers, knowing their lives, work and, especially, your points of view it is time to compare them

Learning the philosophy of each of the three was the first step, that is, creating a mental scheme. As they have progressed through the syllabus, the students have internalized the postulates of the three classical philosophers, having a mental scheme for each of them. At first, when they were learning about the life of, for example, Plato, this new knowledge was in working memory, implying a certain cognitive load. However, because this load was relatively low and easy to handle, they were able to process it and transfer it to long-term memory.

Now that students know about the philosophy of the three philosophers they can easily compare it Unlike case 1, in this case the comparison implies less cognitive load since they have control over the thought of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the cognitively demanding task now being to put them together and compare them, not to learn them since that is already made.

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Implications of cognitive load theory

Every teacher wants their students to learn complex ideas and know how to use them thoughtfully and creatively; in fact, this is the goal of education. However, teachers must be aware that everything takes time and that to carry out a cognitively elevated task such as problem solving and deep reflection First you have to know what you are going to analyze.

One must start from the most basic definitions and ideas, progressively going to the most complex ones, developing along the way schemes that, once well acquired, can be analyzed and compared.

Cognitive load theory provides a general framework for how learning should be promoted and has many implications for designing educational curricula. Those who are in charge of organizing educational content, be they teachers, educational psychologists or any other professional in the educational sciences, must take into account that the student must first be familiarized with the new content. The new knowledge must be given structure and, once well developed and established, move on to more complex cognitive processes such as reflective and in-depth analysis.

The theory of cognitive load supports explicit teaching models, since these models tend to be in tune with how human brains learn most effectively. In explicit instructional models, the teacher shows students very clearly what they have to do, how to do it, and what steps they should follow, instead of expecting students to discover on their own the steps to follow or who actively discover new information.

Naturally, these models have their points of criticism, such as leaving aside the fact that students can play an active role in their own learning, discovering on their own and using creativity and inventiveness to find new solutions to all kinds of problems. from problems. However, it is true that there are certain subjects and lessons in which it is preferable to break down the learning into smaller and more digestible steps to facilitate its acquisition.

Knowledge and critical thinking

One of the most interesting aspects of the theory is that you must first “know things” in order to later be able to think critically about them. Information can be processed by carrying out two processes: the acquisition of knowledge and the resolution of problems. These two processes are fundamental for learning, but They must be done separately so as not to overload our working memory and prevent information processing from being deficient.

Sweller’s model is critical of teaching that abuses learning through problem solving, especially if one has not previously learned or been familiar with the topic related to the problem to be solved.

It is common that the acquisition of knowledge and the resolution of a certain problem ends up overlapping in this teaching style, causing the student to not learn anything or know how to solve the problem posed.

Problem solving takes up a lot of brain bandwidth, so to speak. What is meant by this is that solving a problem implies a high cognitive load, a load which will have to compete with another load, that of acquiring new knowledge if it has not been learned. If certain schemes have not been acquired, it is very difficult to carry out complex processes with them.