Cognitive Load Theory: Implications for nursing education and research

Journal Club Article: Chen, R., Dore, K., Grierson, L. E., Hatala, R., & Norman, G. (2014). Cognitive Load Theory: Implications for nursing education and researchCanadian Journal of Nursing Research Archive46(2).


Students in nursing and health education programs acquire a body of
knowledge, skills, and attitudes during their education in preparation for
future practice.

Use the definition of learning as the student’s acquisition of knowledge, skills, or attitudes.

Learning process is that of student receiving information through:

  • Multiple sensory pathways
    • visual,
    • auditory inputs through pictures, words, and sounds
  • Then creates visual and auditory representations within the cognitive system.

Working Memory, Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), and Learning

3 assumptions about the cognitive architecture of working memory and long-term memory:

  1. First assumption: is that working memory is constrained and limited (Miller, 1956, “seven plus or minus two” units of information at any point in time theory).
  2. Second assumption is that there is virtually unlimited long-term memory, and working memory and long-term memory structures can interact. The idea that information can be brought forth from long-term memory to interact with and facilitate working memory processes (Schnotz & Kürschner, 2007).
  3. Third assumption is that the cognitive load imposed on a learner’s working memory during instruction can be modulated. Thus, the student’s cognitive load can be increased or decreased, impacting information processing in working memory (Mousavi, Low, & Sweller, 1995).

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)

In CLT, there are three components of cognitive load (Van Merriënboer & Sweller, 2005):

  1. “Intrinsic cognitive load describes the actual learning goal or task and is directly related to the quantity and complexity of the learning material The greater the complexity of the learning goal, the greater the intrinsic cognitive load.
  2. Extraneous cognitive load is attributed to features of instruction that are not necessary for learning and that therefore impose a burden on the cognitive processing ability of working memory.
  3. Germane load describes the processing that promotes automation of information into long-term memory, thus facilitating learning. Germane load has been described elsewhere as “generative cognitive processing” (Mayer, 2010) that allows the learner to “make sense of” and understand the presented material.”

“CLT assumes an additive model for the intrinsic and
extraneous cognitive load variables such that, for any particular learning
task or goal, the sum of the intrinsic and extraneous load must not
exceed working memory capacity

Approaches to Education & CLT

  • Manipulate Cognitive Load to Optimize Working Memory

Identifying the appropriate amount and type of cognitive load
imposed on a learner during instruction is a significant factor in the
success of an educator’s instructional intervention

Modify the approach and adjust the complexity of tasks or material to be learned, thus reducing the intrinsic cognitive load.

  • Approaches to Minimizing Extraneous Cognitive Load

Provide explicit steps and instruction to solve a problem, allows students to focus on the particular learning goal in the instructional
session rather than expending cognitive resources attempting to solve the

  • Approaches to Fostering Germane Load

“germane cognitive load promotes acquisition and automation of information into long-term memory. Therefore, efforts both to decrease extraneous load and to increase germane load during instruction are advocated, with the goal that the total cognitive load does not exceed working memory capacity.”

Nurse Educator Challenges

The nurse educator will need to consider the learning objectives and taxonomy of learning (Taxonomy & Intended Learning Outcomes). The difficulty is attempting to measure the cognitive load variables of the education session. In workplace training, there may also be a diverse range of learners with varying levels of experience and expertise.

Additional Resources

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Book Club)

Fish & Chunks: Chunking Theory

Good and Bad Studying by Barbara Oakley

Blooms Taxonomy & Intended Learning Outcomes