What is Cognitive Load?

What is cognitive load? Cognitive load is some sort of strain or heaviness that you feel in your head when you are trying to understand something complex or learn something difficult. Sometimes it’s referred as invested mental effort (Paas, 1992) in more easy terms. When you are really trying to make sense of something or to solve a problem, you are probably experiencing heavy cognitive load, too.

I’m a content producer and PhD student in Educational Technology. Although the theories related to cognitive load date back to 1980’s, the idea of cognitive load still remains influential, relevant and important as a framework for the studies of multimedia learning and the design of educational materials. In this article, I will try to summarise what cognitive load is a bit more in detail.

Learning Processes

When we say ‘we are leaning,’ what operations or actions are we actually talking about? Educational psychologist, Richard E. Mayer, recognised three cognitive processes required for learning: selecting, organising, and integrating (Mayer, 2005). It is called the Select-Organise-Integrate (S-O-I) model (Mayer & Fiorella, 2016), and these processes are associated with three types of memory: sensory memory, working memory, and long-term memory.


When a learner attends to a learning material, information is selected to be transferred from sensory memory to working memory.


Selected information is then mentally organised in working memory.


The sufficiently processed information in working memory is integrated with relevant prior knowledge stored in long-term memory.

Working Memory Capacity

During the process of learning, information must be held in working memory while being processed sufficiently before it’s passed into long-term memory. However, the capacity of working memory is limited while long-term memory is virtually unlimited (Sweller et al, 1998). So, when working memory is overloaded, learners’ information processing slows down (Sweller, 1988).

Therefore, the cognitive load needs to be managed in order to make the learning process more efficient (van Merriënboer & Sweller, 2005; Clark & Mayer, 2016).

The most prominent theories based on the limited working memory capacity and its necessary management are Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) by John Sweller (Sweller, 1988), and Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (CTML) by Mayer (Mayer, 2005).

Sub-types of Cognitive Load

According to Cognitive Load Theory, it is assumed that there are three different types of cognitive load: Intrinsic Cognitive Load, Extraneous Cognitive Load, and Germane Cognitive Load (Sweller et al., 1998).

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

Intrinsic cognitive load is cognitive load that is inherent and indigenous to the complexity of learning material being dealt with. Therefore, it cannot be altered by instructional intervention.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

Extraneous cognitive load is cognitive load that is unnecessary and irrelevant for learning, which can be disturbing for knowledge acquirement. We can alter it by instructional intervention.

Germane Cognitive Load

Germane cognitive load is cognitive load that contributes to organisation and integration of information. Higher germane load means more engagement of learners and the better building of correct mental images (Paas et al., 2003). Similarly to extraneous load, germane load can be altered by instructional intervention.

While extraneous load disrupts leaning, germane load helps leaners to acquire knowledge. Hence, when it comes to instructional design, we should aim to design leaning materials that reduce extraneous load and increase germane load.

Principles of Multimedia Leaning

In the book Multimedia Learning, Mayer discusses fifteen principles (Third edition, 2020) in regards to multimedia design. These principles are based on the cognitive theory and give practical recommendations useful for designing process of multimedia learning materials. These are fundamentally principles to help reduce extraneous load and increase germane load.

Principles for Reducing Extraneous Processing

Coherence Principle

People learn better when extraneous material (words, pictures and sounds) is excluded rather than included.

Signalling Principle

People learn better when cues are added that highlight the organisation of the essential material.

Redundancy Principle

People do not learn better when printed text is added to graphics and narration.

Spatial Contiguity Principle

People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.

Temporal Contiguity Principle

People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.

Principles for Managing Essential Processing

Segmenting Principle

People learn better when a multimedia lesson is presented in user-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit.

Pre-training Principle

People learn better from a multimedia lesson when they know the names and characteristics of the main concepts.

Modality Principle

People learn better from graphics and narrations than from graphics and on-screen text.

Principles for Fostering Generative Processing

Multimedia Principle

People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.

Personalisation Principle

People learn better from multimedia lessons when words are in conversational style rather than formal style.

Voice Principle

People learn better when the narration in multimedia lessons is spoken in a friendly human voice rather than a machine voice.

Image Principle

People do not necessarily learn better from a multimedia lesson when the speaker’s image is added to the screen.

Embodiment Principle

People learn more deeply from multimedia presentations when a on-screen instructor displays high embodiment rather than low embodiment.

Immersion Principle

People do not necessarily learn better in 3D immersive virtual reality than with a corresponding 2D desktop presentation.

Generative Activity Principle

People learn better when they are guided in carrying out generative learning activities during learning e.g., summarising, mapping, drawing, imaging, self-testing, self-explaining, teaching, or enacting.

Mayer’s Multimedia Learning was first published back in 2001, but the 3rd edition in 2020 additionally includes the last three principles (embodiment, immersion and generative activity), responding to the extended media usage of contemporary multimedia learning such as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.


Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. Wiley.

Fiorella, Logan & Mayer, Richard. (2016). Eight Ways to Promote Generative Learning. Educational Psychology Review. 28. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-015-9348-9

Mayer, R. E. (2005). Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning. In R. E. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (pp. 31–48). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511816819.004

Mayer, R. E. (2020). Multimedia Learning. 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press.

Paas, F. G. W. C. (1992). Training strategies for attaining transfer of problem-solving skill in statistics: A cognitive-load approach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(4), 429–434. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.84.4.429

Paas, F., Renkl, A., & Sweller, J. (2003a). Cognitive load theory and instructional design: Recent developments. Educational Psychologist, 38, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15326985EP3801_1

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive Load during Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12, p.257-285. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog1202_4

Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J.J.G. & Paas, F.G. W.C. (1998) Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design. Educational Psychology Review 10, 251–296. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1022193728205

van Merriënboer, J.J.G., Sweller, J. (2005). Cognitive Load Theory and Complex Learning: Recent Developments and Future Directions. Educ Psychol Rev 17147–177. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-005-3951-0