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Cognitive Load Theory by Oliver Lovell

Below is a summary/set of notes on some of the more important areas from Oliver Lovell's excellent book on CLT. I am a History/Business teacher by trade so I approached it from that angle - but I believe all of my 'takeaways' (See the end) are easily applicable to all subjects.

This book was read as part of the Pedagogy book club on twitter that run termly CPD studies on a text at a time, they can be found here: - Please check them out and get involved!


Cognitive Load Theory In Action, by Oliver Lovell.

The basics:

1. There is long term memory, working memory and external memory.

The trick is to get stuff from the external memory (which is a fancy way of saying – ‘all the information stored out there in the world’) into the long term memory, via the bottle neck of the working memory (short term).

Therefore cognitive load theory is designed to do two things:

a) Reduce extraneous load (unnecessary things) on working memory.

b) Optimise intrinsic load (necessary things) on working memory.

Extraneous load is the delivery method, the unnecessary ‘static’ that accompanies most learning, the ‘intrinsic’ load is the vital stuff you actually need the student to learn. Both added together ‘fill’ working memory – so the more of the former you can remove and the more of the later you can increase the better!

Controversial element?

The controversial bit of CLT is that knowledge is split into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’. Primary is ‘natural’ and includes stuff like problem solving and socialising. Secondary is domain specific – e.g. technical knowledge applicable only to a certain field.

Primary knowledge is believed to bypass working memory. Secondary is the stuff that can overload it.

So – you can’t teach problem solving – all you can teach is secondary knowledge. So in this case a chess master isn’t a chess master because he can see several moves ahead and has a great problem solving brain – it is because in his long term memory is a tonne of chess scenarios that he has taught himself via working memory. Therefore the novice chess master has to solve problems – the chess master merely recognises patterns/situations from their long term memory. (eek). – sort of also lends support to the 10,000 hours theory of excellence.

How do we reduce ‘extraneous load’?

This might be a challenge for Historians! We enjoy our little anecdotes and are famously easy to get off topic. I think we do this in part because we believe linking an important feature to a funny anecdote will help learning – however – based on the number of times students have repeated these anecdotes in their exam answers back to me – without explaining the underlying theory or trend tells me that perhaps this isn’t the best way to teach after all. At least, not all of the time.

Does CLT mean teachers should strip their lessons of all anecdotes? Maybe. Sometimes.

Other more practical solutions:

· Pre-teach vocab, characters, timelines and skills – this will prevent an unfamiliarity with these clogging up the working memory as you try to teach the new content or narrative.

· Build skills up in a hierarchy: The Writing Revolution is mentioned here as an excellent CLT program – you begin with the small steps – like effective sentences and use of vocab before moving up to wider paragraph and essay structure. I think in history we are especially guilty, we jump straight to our PEE/PEEL/PEEKA paragraphs while paying little time on demonstrating with a good ‘Example’ or ‘Explain’ sentence looks like!

· Break assessments down to focus on one key skill at a time, e.g. “In this assessment I will only be marking you for paragraph structure/spelling/evidence sentences”.

How should we structure the introduction of these elements in our curriculum?

· Forward chaining – teach the elements one at a time, e.g. Skill A – Skill B – Skill C

· Snowballing – Build it up one layer a time, e.g. Skill A, Skills A & B, Skills A, B & C.

What is transient information and what impact does it have?

Going too far too fast is bad. Basically. Working memory quickly gets full and nothing else can go in. Videos are rarely watched beyond 6 minutes – things like the ‘Crash Course’ series on YouTube while entertaining are especially bad at working memory overload.

Even classroom discussions, so prized as an integral part of learning – are transient. Quickly forgotten by students.


· Break instructions/videos into segments with activities built in to check progress.

· Things like the Crash Course videos can be used as screenshots and then allow for slower teacher explanations.

· Write down suggestions/ideas from discussions on the board.

Key takeaways:

Nothing is really new here – CLT speaks to what we intrinsically feel to be ‘right’ and ‘true’ about learning already – e.g. ‘students can only take in so much at once’. However, seriously sitting down with your planning both within and across lessons to segment the learning episodes and prevent extrenaous information is rare. The time involved to do such a task is rare for a teacher or a department and then the discipline required to stick to those plans in the face of both outside factors (CAT4 exams/school photos taking away lessons etc) and the teacher’s own desire to indulge off topic conversations/use of anecdotes – is also a rarity.

However, if the time and energy could be invested as such, it seems to be that the pay offs would be huge, with vastly increased ‘effective learning’ taking place.

Practical steps:

1. Break down the learning of writing skills throughout KS3/4.

2. Pre-teach vocab/characters/timelines separately before jumping into the main narrative (we need all that contextual information to be in their long term memories before we begin!)

3. Limit videos – including my own teacher led/distance learning videos which are often way more than 6 minutes in length!

4. Make use of more ‘skill specific’ assessments.

5. Make a conscience effort to incorporate either forwarding linking of snowballing into curriculum planning.

This diagram appears to be especially useful:


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