Cognitive Load Theory of Multimedia Learning (Sweller)


Summary: A theory that focuses the load on working memory during instruction.

Originators and proponents: John Sweller (1946-)

Keywords: cognitive load theory, working memory, multimedia learning

Cognitive Load Theory of Multimedia Learning (Sweller)

John Sweller describes the human cognitive architecture, and the need to apply sound instructional design principles based on our knowledge of the brain and memory[1][2]. Sweller first describes the different types of memory, and how both are interrelated, because schemas held in long-term memory, acting as a “central executive”, directly affect the manner in which information is synthesized in working memory. Sweller then explains that in the absence of schemas, instructional guidance must provide a substitute for learners to develop either own schemas.

Sweller discusses, in his view, three types of cognitive load:

  • extraneous cognitive load
  • intrinsic cognitive load
  • germane cognitive load

Intrinsic cognitive load

First described by Chandler and Sweller, intrinsic cognitive load is the idea that all instruction has an inherent difficulty associated with it (for instance, calculating 5+5).  This inherent difficulty may not be altered by an instructor. However many schemas may be broken into individual “subschemas” and taught in isolation, to be later brought back together and described as a combined whole.

Extraneous cognitive load

Extraneous cognitive load, by contrast, is under the control of instructional designers.  This form of cognitive load is generated by the manner in which information is presented to learners (i.e., the design).  To illustrate an example of extraneous cognitive load, assume there are  at least two possible ways to describe a geometric shape like a triangle.  An instructor could describe a triangle in a verbally, but to show a diagram of a triangle is much better because the learner does not have to deal with extraneous, unnecessary information.

Germane cognitive load

Germane load is a third kind of cognitive load which is encouraged to be promoted.  Germane load is the load dedicated to the processing, construction and automation of schemas. While intrinsic load is generally thought to be immutable, instructional designers can manipulate extraneous and germane load. It is suggested that they limit extraneous load and promote germane load.

Extraneous cognitive load and intrinsic cognitive load are not ideal; they result from inappropriate instructional designs and complexity of information. Germane cognitive load is coined as “effective’ cognitive load, caused by successful schema construction. Each of the cognitive loads are additive, and instructional design’s goal should be to reduce extraneous cognitive load to free up working memory[3]. Reviews in the mid-2000’s provide recent developments and future directions in cognitive load theory research[4][5].


For more information, see:


  1. Sweller, J., Van Merrienboer, J. J., & Paas, F. G. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational psychology review, 10(3), 251-296.
  2. Paas, F., Renkl, A., & Sweller, J. (2004). Cognitive load theory: Instructional implications of the interaction between information structures and cognitive architecture. Instructional science, 32(1), 1-8.
  3. Mousavi, S. Y., Low, R., & Sweller, J. (1995). Reducing cognitive load by mixing auditory and visual presentation modes. Journal of educational psychology, 87(2), 319.
  4. Paas, F., Renkl, A., & Sweller, J. (2003). Cognitive load theory and instructional design: Recent developments. Educational psychologist, 38(1), 1-4.
  5. Van Merrienboer, J. J., & Sweller, J. (2005). Cognitive load theory and complex learning: Recent developments and future directions. Educational psychology review, 17(2), 147-17.

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