John Sweller
John Sweller

John Sweller, an educational psychologist with a Bachelor of Arts and Ph.D. in psychology, both from the University of Adelaide, has dedicated much of his attention and work to studying human cognition and learning amongst individuals within varying contexts. His doctoral thesis, entitled "Effects of initial discrimination training on subsequent shift learning in animals and humans," emphasized this interest in education, and the effects of learning on individual's cognitive progression and development. Sweller's writing and research on these and other topics, including cognition and instructional design and the implications of human memory limitations, have been highly regarded and embraced by the academic community. He has written over eighty academically published papers, which have been cited in various journals, encyclopaedias and books six thousand times, with that number increasing as more educators gain an understanding of the significance of psychology to the classroom.

Sweller's most prominent contribution to pedagogy is the cognitive load theory, formulated using his strong foundational knowledge and understanding of cognition and educational development. First formulated in the 1980s, cognitive load theory has been Sweller's primary focus for research and discussion, continuing to write on this topic into the present day. He has incorporated his other areas of work, including memorization and knowledge processing to strengthen his pedagogical arguments and definitions. After thirty-nine years of lecturing, and graduating more than 40 doctoral students, Sweller is now Emeritus Professor of Education with the University of New South Wales, a position he has held since 2006. He is also a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA).

Cognitive Load Theory

While ultimately focused on education and learning in the classroom, the cognitive load theory has its grounding in the psychology concepts of cognition, schemas, and intellectual automation. These concepts and their interrelationship with each other create the framework upon which Sweller developed and further examined his theory:
  • Cognition: The mental process of receiving knowledge and understanding through a variety of outlets, including experiences, thoughts, actions, and senses. Cognition forms the basis of, essentially, intellectual development and learning.
  • Schema: Constructs developed through cognition, organizing numerous fractals of information into a manageable and understandable grouping within an individual's memory; schemas may be based around simple objects, such as trees and cars, problem-solving and solutions to issues faced, or be more complex in organizing and storing abilities and skillsets, such as reading and writing skills.
  • Automation of Intellectual Operations: Cognitive activity currently being focused on and given attention to, such as the creation of schemas, is processed in a controlled manner; the less experience one has in a particular subject area, the more time, attention, and energy they will need to spend building these schemas and memories. Material that has already been learned in an efficient manner will make this process of comprehension and absorption automated, allowing for more materials, resources, and outlets of information to be built into an individual's cognitive processes.

Sweller notes that the definition of learning typically utilized in traditional teaching ideologies and classrooms is the automated formation of schemas kept within students' long-term memory. However, while this definition typified education, Sweller disagrees with the methods of teachers attempting to force memorization on their students through poor instructional design, content, and pedagogical practices. Students' cognitive architecture, their ability to generate and store schemas within their memories, are being overworked by teaching methods which are unnecessarily complex, and overestimate human capacity for memorization and knowledge-building. Sweller frequently uses the example of overwrought, 'means-end' mathematic equations, where the sole purpose of the question posed to students is solving a single problem, without challenging their skills or allowing them to recognize individual mathematical patterns within the equation. This complexity means the entire cognitive process is controlled, thus meaning students must dedicate more cognitive energy and attention towards a single goal, as opposed to building schemas and, therefore, advancing their knowledge and understanding.
An example of a 'means-end' problem.

Cognitive load theory is focused on the ways education can overcome these challenges to schema-building, through acknowledging the connections between information, such as questions, facts, and resources, and students' cognitive architecture and memorization capabilities. By understanding the cognitive load in the subject matter at hand, and how it may be lessened, or possibly increased, through their instructional practices, educators can create ideal learning settings for their students. The different types of cognitive loads as described by Sweller are:
  • Intrinsic cognitive load: The level of difficulty and complexity of particular set of knowledge being acquired, without the context of how or where it is being required, such as the teaching instruction or educational setting. Materials and information differ in their intrinsic cognitive load, ranging from reading skills to understanding chemical elements and symbols, and this level of difficulty cannot be altered through educational instruction. Rather, teachers must recognize these levels of complexity and reduce the cognitive input for students, by omitting particular elements of the information at hand. Teachers must ensure the omitted information is later covered, for understanding and schemas to form.
  • Extraneous cognitive load: Like the 'means-end' math example above, extraneous cognitive loads require students' focus and attention without helping their memorization, schema-building processes, or automation of knowledge. Extraneous cognitive load is frequently brought about through traditional teaching practices such as directed lines of questions requiring students to narrow their focus and understanding of the material at hand. Sweller and other researchers have sought to redesign instructional designs to reduce extraneous cognitive load in the classroom, ensuring are not overwhelmed with information, while remaining focused on gaining and maintain knowledge and understanding of the material at hand.
  • Germane cognitive load: Unlike extraneous cognitive load, germane cognitive load is enhanced by proper instructional design, with student learning in turn benefitting from this level of cognitive process. When resources and teaching methods become devoted to aiding students in the formation of schemas and understanding, germane cognitive load is increased. This type of cognitive load represents the ideal collaboration between instructional design and cognition sought after by Sweller and his academic peers, and offers significant benefits for improving student memorization and success in the classroom.

Though developed in the 1980s, prior to the dominance of digital and online technologies in education, the cognitive load theory has acclimated well to the digital era. With a plethora of resources and outlets of information available to them, teachers are better able to understand the limitations and implications of what they are teaching their students, reducing the potential for over-exertion in the classroom. and overwhelming expectations of student memorization. Many educational technologies, as well as formats for e-learning, lend themselves well to this theory, as they offer students shorter, more straightforward tasks, easing cognitive processes and reducing extraneous cognitive load. As well, the inclusion of multimedia in the classroom, and non-linear forms of information storage and organization online, allow students' automated cognitive operations to process information for them at a rapid pace, focusing their attention on specific facets of material and information which may be more challenging or new to them.


Curricular Considerations

For cognitive load theory to be implemented successfully within the classroom, educators must have a sound understanding of the intrinsic cognitive load, complexity, and difficulty the material at hand presents to students, and adjust their teaching practices and instructional design accordingly. While most learning theories are flexible, changing to fit into different subject matters, cognitive load theory requires educators to be even more precise in their awareness of the collation between the 'what' and the 'how' of their teaching. Using both their prior experience in the classroom, if they have taught the same or similar material, and/or utilizing online resources to gather other teachers' experiences with particular topics will better prepare educators to design successful lessons. These lesson plans should include no 'means-end' questions, requiring a staggering amount of time, focus, and energy to answer a single problem, and should instead comprise of smaller, faster components, which should incorporate students' prior skills and knowledge. This may include relating current material to what was previously learned, allowing students the opportunity to seamlessly build upon their established schemas and knowledge.

As noted by Sweller and other researchers covering this learning theory, technology would provide an ideal platform for this germane cognitive load in the classroom. By using Mishra's and Koehler's TPACK (Technological, Pedagogical, and Content Knowledge) framework for education, teachers may better understand what technology corresponds with both the content being taught, and the instructional design being implemented within the classroom. From this model, the cognitive load theory can then be applied to ensure the technology, content, and pedagogy do not overwhelm students or exceed their memorization capacities. This dynamic between four distinct components, technology, content, pedagogy, and cognition, should inform teachers' curriculum and instruction, ensuring both the material is being taught efficiently and effectively, while meeting the students' cognitive needs. To assist teachers in developing and identifying germane cognitive load, students should record their experiences, learned knowledge, and skills within the classroom, through the use of digital or hand-written notes; these will allow teachers to see where students may be automatically processing information, and where there are areas in need of clarification or improvement.

Extending Questions

  1. Are cognitive processes, as Sweller claims, undervalued in teaching theories and pedagogies? Should educators have a better understanding of students' psychological capabilities, limitations, and structures when examining or implementing learning theories in the classroom?
  2. Is extraneous cognitive load more difficult to avoid in particular subjects, such as the sciences, based on their high intrinsic cognitive load and complexity? Or are the challenges of cohesively utilizing instructional design to benefit student cognitive processes interdisciplinary and universal across all subjects in schools (elementary, secondary, and post-secondary)?
  3. Is memorization an essential part of learning in the twenty-first century? Have digital technologies ultimately helped improve students' memorization and understanding of material, or hampered it?

Researcher's External Links

International Cognitive Load Theory Association
Interview with John Sweller


Paas, F., Renkl, A., & Sweller, J. (2003). Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design: Recent Developments. Educational Psychologist, 38 (1). Retrieved from
Petticoat Creek Press. (2013). John Sweller, Ph.D. Retrieved from
Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive Load Theory, Learning Difficulty, and Instructional Design. Learning and Instruction, 4. Retrieved from
UNSW Australia. (2014). Emeritus Professor John Sweller. Retrieved from
van Mierlo,, C.M., Jarodzka, H., Kirschner, F., & Kirschner, P.A. (2012). Cognitive Load Theory in E-Learning [Abstract]. Retrieved from

"When student are given relatively novel problems to solve, they will not be able to use previously acquired schemas to generate solutions. Nevertheless, they still may be able to find a solution." - John Sweller