Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cognitive Load and How the Brain Learns Best

Cognitive load in layman’s terms actually amounts to how much the working memory can process at one time. The cognitive load theory was largely formulated by an Australian educational psychologist named John Sweller. His theory provides guidelines for presenting information in ways that allow the learner to optimize their brain power. Sweller does this by emphasizing the inherent limitations of working memory during prolonged instruction (Sweller, J. 1988). Instead of delving further into Sweller’s theory, I would like to turn the microscope dial down a little and look at cognitive load on the neurological level.

Educators are literally trying to change the brain of their learners. This does not mean that we all have to study neuroscience to be effective educators, only that we understand what might be happening inside the learner brain while we are narrating, animating, demonstrating or exercising our points of education. Learning requires attention, and attention is controlled by specific parts of the brain (Perry, B. 2009).  After five minutes or less, our neurons become less responsive or fatigued. After a short rest, they can recover and be ready to go again; however, neurons will tire again after sustained, continuous stimulation. Dr. Bruce Perry provides an “aha” metaphor for neurons and how they operate, by discussing the differences between a piano and an organ. If you place your finger on an organ key, it will continue to make sound until you lift your finger. Conversely, if you put your finger on a piano key, it makes only one short note, regardless of how long you keep your finger on the key. Neurons are like pianos in this example. They respond to patterned and repetitive stimulation rather than lengthy or continuous (Perry, B. 2009).

Our brain creates cognitive structures called schemas that help us to process data, according to Sweller. Once again, Dr. Perry has an excellent explanation of Sweller’s schema structure that simplifies it for the everyday educator. When a learner is presented a basic fact, they use one neural system. (call it A) When the learner is presented a concept related to that fact, a slightly different, but interconnected set (B) of neurons is used. When the learner is presented a story about that fact and concept, other sets (C and D) of neural systems are engaged. These interconnected neural systems are all essential, and learners will remember lessons more thoroughly if they can tap into all of these neural systems (A, B, C and D) during the learning experience. So how can you avoid cognitive load and exercise each of these neural systems? The same way boxers avoid getting punched – bob and weave (Perry, B. 2009).

To create the most effective presentations of material, you should move back and forth through these neural systems, weaving facts, concepts and stories; adding analogies, humor, and emotion. Link facts with related concepts, and connect them to a story, then on to additional facts, and tie the new facts back to your story. Thus, bobbing and weaving, in and out of these different methods of presentation are key, along with elements of originality, newness and novelty.

This is how the brain learns best.

Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the ChildTrauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment (


Sweller, John. (1988). “Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning”. Cognitive Science 12 (2): 257–285. Retrieved from

Perry, Bruce. (2009).  How the brain learns best.  Retrieved from

Bonus Video on the anatomy of the brain presented by Pinky and the Brain 
(a must see)

Other interesting articles and case studies about Cognitive Load

A brief introduction to cognitive load theory and dissertation excerpt by David Lewis, PhD

A case study on cognitive overload by Jennifer Harrod

An article that discusses nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia presentations by Richard Mayer and Roxana Moreno

1 comment:

  1. Julia-every time I start to think about our class...I hear "Brain stem! Brain stem!" Great reminder from Pinky & the Brain! Also, great post this week. The bob and weave analogy you wrote about is great. Relating the new information with the old and weaving that in with examples, stories (even cartoons!) will help our learners access the information more effectively in the future!

    Thanks again,