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Reduce cognitive load

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Cognitive load is the amount of mental effort it takes to do a task. There are three sources of cognitive load for every task. One is intrinsic load—the amount of mental involved in performing the task. For instance, in working a math problem you must do a number of mathematical procedures. This effort is intrinsic to the task itself. A second source is called germane load, which is the mental effort involved in deep learning and trying to understand the task or material. If I read an unfamiliar text much of my effort should be focused on trying to make sense out of it. A third source of load comes from the immediate environment, especially the instructional context, and is extraneous to learning the subject or doing the task at hand. Disorganized instruction, for example, contributes extraneous load to a task. Every learning situation involves a combination of these three sources of mental effort.

Unfortunately, our capacity to process information is seriously limited. People can manipulate only a few pieces of information at one time. Students are often asked to take in large amounts of new information that exceed their processing capacity, resulting in cognitive overload and poor learning.


  1. Build on Students’ Prior Knowledge. It is easier for students to make sense of new information when it is clearly related to what they already know (prior knowledge). Large amounts of unfamiliar material automatically increase cognitive load. 

  2. Segment Material. By segmenting the subject matter you help students process shorter of smaller chunks of material. You can do this by using pauses to note breaking points between topic [which also give students a chance to catch up], explicit transitions from one topic to another explicit references to how ideas and topics are related to one another.

  3. Increase Coherence, Eliminate Irrelevant Material. Well-organized information is better understood and remembered. Students may not be able to impose coherence on disorganized information. Irrelevant material also poses problems for students because often they don’t know that it is irrelevant or tangential and devote mental effort to trying to connect it to the topic at hand. To the extent possible, teachers should try to reduce extraneous material or move it into a designated part of the class period where students understand that it is not critical information. 

  4. Develop Automated Routines and Knowledge. It is not possible to increase your working memory capacity, but it is possible to reduce the cognitive load of some tasks by automating them. If there are some procedures and concepts that will be used repeatedly in a class, students may benefit by overlearning these until they are automated. An automated routine is simple a procedure that you can perform with almost no mental effort, e.g., multiplication tables.

  5. Scaffold Complex Tasks, Processes and Procedures. Scaffolding involves providing support that simplifies complex tasks. Training wheels scaffold the complex task of learning to ride a bicycle. They provide support so the novice can learn to pedal, steer and brake without also concentrating on balance. Once these aspects of cycling become familiar, there is more space in working memory to concentrate on balance and the training wheels can come off. A worked example involves scaffolding in which the entire solution is available so the student can explore different aspects of the problem without holding all the parts in working memory.

Tips to Implement Reducing Cognitive Load Effectively

  • Cognitive task analysis. If there is an especially difficult topic or assignment in your course, try doing a cognitive task analysis to identify the background knowledge, intellectual skills, procedures and decisions students need in order to successfully grasp the topic or complete the assignment. You may discover hidden complexities that overload students. The analysis may also help you identify ways to scaffold the topic, break it into segments, and find appropriate sequences for students to learn the topic.
  • Cognitive empathy. Teachers are experts and students are novices. The gap is enormous. It is hard for experts to remember what it was like not to know their subject. Much of what experts know becomes tacit understanding that is invisible to students. To appreciate the complexity of the subject and your assignments try to take the perspective of the novice who does not have extensive background knowledge or experience with your disciplinary thinking, conventions and expertise. Viewing your field from a novice’s perspective can help you identify and better understand why some concepts, assumptions, and procedures are particularly challenging for students.  


Cerbin, W. (2015). Reduce cognitive load. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from