Cognitive load theory and instructional design: An outline of the theory and reflections on a need for new directions to cater for individual differences and motivation

Wayne Michael Leahy*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

    1 Citation (Scopus)


    Cognitive load theory (hereafter CLT; see Sweller, 2006; Sweller, van Merrienboer & Paas, 1998; Sweller, 1994; 1988) has been used for nearly two decades to develop innovative learning formats in instructional design. It essentially draws upon some aspects of the information processing/schema theory approach to learning. The theory maintains that it is critical to take into account the limitations of our working memory if learning is to be efficient. Using hundreds of controlled empirical studies comparing conventional instructional formats to formats guided by CLT has generated positive results. These have been critically reviewed and generally accepted in the field of educational psychology. The use of CLT designed formats suggest there is less mental effort for the learner, a reduced training time, higher performance on test scores and transfer to similar problems, and longer duration for retention of information. The theory presents one perspective of our cognitive architecture. Among the many CLT instructional designs used, two concern individual differences and motivation. These are: 1. The prior knowledge of the learner (termed the expertise reversal effect - see Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler & Sweller, 2003) and 2. Mental rehearsal (termed the imagination effect - see Ginns, 2005; Leahy & Sweller, 2007; 2005; 2004). The expertise reversal effect is an interesting and counter intuitive effect explored by CLT where learners who have some prior knowledge of the instructional material may do worse, under certain conditions, rather than better than those learners with no prior knowledge. The second condition, mental rehearsal, is a learning strategy that has been used for many years (e.g. Sackett, 1934; 1935). It has been known variously by other terminology including "anticipative reasoning" (Dunbar, 2000) and "self-explanation" (Renkl, 1997). Since 1998, CLT has researched this approach in a series of experiments and termed it the "imagination effect". A number of motivational and cognitive issues have emerged that illustrate the conditions that make the strategy either viable or unproductive. One of the relevant limitations of CLT is that the experiments do not cater enough for individual differences of the learner. Important factors within the field of individual differences such as motivation, learning styles or gender for example are not adequately taken into account. This chapter will outline CLT, and then provide a summary of various experiments conducted within its theoretical framework. The experiments include exploration of the expertise reversal effect, the use of an imagination strategy (imagination effect) and unique work on CLT and motivation conducted by Pass, Tuovinen, van Merrienboer and Darabi (2005) and Pass and van Merrienboer (1993). From all of these studies, the chapter will identify some issues and limitations emerging concerning motivation and individual differences. New directions that may address these will be suggested.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationEducational Psychology: Cognition and Learning, Individual Differences and Motivation
    EditorsJonathon E. Larson
    Place of PublicationNew York
    PublisherNova Science Publishers
    Number of pages16
    ISBN (Print)9781606922767
    Publication statusPublished - 2009


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