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Cognitive Load Theory and Multimedia Learning

Let’s continue with our posts about Craig Barton’s fantastic book focused on evidence-based learning in mathematics.

Today I will talk to you about the fourth chapter, which focuses on cognitive load and multimedia learning. This chapter addresses how the cognitive load is fundamentally affected by different agents involved in the teaching-learning process.

Cognitive Load Theory

Let’s start with the idea that, in a classroom, there are many situations competing for our student’s attention. The teacher’s voice, other student’s voices, noise from the playground, the sky they can see from the window. Educational posters for different subjects, the things they have on their desks, the board, the lights, their own thoughts. And, of course, their anxiety. All of these things can saturate their working memory which, as we know from an earlier post, has a limited capacity.

The cognitive load theory suggests that teaching should be careful and effective to not overload the information processing capacity of working memory. There is the risk that information being processed will be interpreted incorrectly if the cognitive load surpasses the limits of working memory. This could result in it being stored inaccurately in the long term memory.

It is not about lowering the level or working on simpler concepts but adjusting strategies, requirements, or information. By taking these steps student’s do not exceed the acceptable limits of the cognitive load.

cognitive load

Types of Cognitive Load

Intrinsic load

Directly relates to the ”difficulty of the subject matter being learnt, and is determined by the complexity of the material and prior knowledge of the learner” (Barton 2018)

For example, a student knowing a three-sided polygon is a triangle it does not imply that they know an eight-sided polygon is an octagon. However, being able to identify the vertices of a triangle should imply that they know how to identify those of an octagon.

Make sure students have the necessary prior knowledge to cope with new learning stored properly in long term memory. This is the best way to reduce the intrinsic load.

Extraneous load

Is not necessary for learning and is, in fact, harmful to the process. It is usually the result of poorly chosen instructions, methodology, environment or quality of the relationship with students. It is about the so-called math anxiety.

For example, you are a substitute teacher who has been at the school for a day. Your students don’t quite trust you yet and you decide to use coins to teach decimals. Beforehand, you should be sure that they are able and familiar with the different types of coins. (Due to lack of trust, it’s possible that they will not ask you.) If they do not know how to deal with money, you will be adding obstacles to their learning, kick-starting anxiety.

Germane load

Refers to the load imposed on working memory by the process of learning. In other words, it is the process of transferring information from working into long term memory.

Craig Barton argues that we should reduce the intrinsic and extraneous loads. This would allow the germane load to take up most of the total cognitive load. This way the learning process will be more fluid and will help our students save their cognitive resources.

In any case, the sum of all these loads added together should not exceed the student’s limit. It may be the case that, students exceed their maximum cognitive load solely by a high germane load.

Theory of Multimedia Learning

This theory stresses the importance of reducing the extraneous load and is based on three key assumptions about working memory:

  • Dual-channel assumption: people have separate channels for processing visual and verbal material.
  • Limited capacity assumption: people can process only a limited amount of information in a channel at any one time.
  • Active processing assumption: meaningful learning occurs when learners select relevant material, organize it into a coherent structure, and integrate it with relevant prior knowledge. (Barton 2018).

According to Craig Barton, combining these two theories gives us a map of how information should be presented and worked with during the initial phase of the teaching-learning process. This helps students to dedicate their working memory solely to processing the correct information.

The rest of the chapter is divided into sections. These sections further explain how to help reduce the extraneous load that some students are subject to.

At Smartick we take these situations very seriously and always try to have our students put forth their best effort to process what is truly important.


  • Barton, Craig. 2018. How I Wish I’d Taught Maths : Lessons Learned from Research, Conversations with Experts, and 12 Years of Mistakes. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.

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