This literature review provides an overview of cognitive load theory, which is a theory of how human brains learn and store knowledge. Dylan Wiliam has described cognitive load theory as ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’. Grounded in a robust evidence base, cognitive load theory provides support for explicit models of instruction.
The human brain can only process a small amount of new information at once, but it can process very large amounts of stored information.
Information is processed in the working memory, where small amounts of information are stored for a very short time. The average person can only hold about four ‘chunks’ of information in their working memory at one time.
Long-term memory is where large amounts of information are stored semi-permanently. Information is stored in the long-term memory in ‘schemas’, which provide a system for organising and storing knowledge.
If a student’s working memory is overloaded, there is a risk that they will not understand the content being taught and that their learning will be slow and/or ineffective.
With extensive practice, information can be automatically recalled from long-term memory with minimal conscious effort. This ‘automation’ reduces the burden on working memory, because when information can be accessed automatically, the working memory is freed up to learn new information.
Cognitive load theory provides support for explicit models of instruction.
Cognitive load theory is supported by a significant number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). This large body of evidence indicates that instruction is most effective when it is designed according to the limitations of working memory.
Cognitive load theory indicates that when teaching students new content and skills, teachers are more effective when they provide explicit guidance accompanied by practice and feedback, not when they require students to discover for themselves many aspects of what they must learn.
Research from cognitive load theory has produced a number of instructional techniques that are directly transferable to the classroom.
These include the ‘worked example effect’, which is the widely replicated finding that novice learners who are given worked examples to study perform better on subsequent tests than learners who are required to solve the equivalent problems themselves.
Another finding is the 'expertise reversal effect', which shows that as students become more proficient at solving a particular type of problem, they should gradually be given more opportunities for independent problem solving.
CESE has recently released a professional learning course based on this literature review, which will contribute 1.5 hours of registered professional learning for teachers.
To help share the evidence, Cognitive load theory is available as a summary poster (PDF, 119kB).
Dylan Wiliam has described cognitive load theory as ‘the single most important thing for teachers to know’. Grounded in a robust evidence base, cognitive load theory provides support for explicit models of instruction. The CESE literature review ‘Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand’ explains the principles behind cognitive load theory and how it assists the human brain to learn and store knowledge.
The average person can only hold about four ‘chunks’ of information in their working memory at once.
Information is stored in ‘schemas’ which provide a system for organising and storing knowledge.
If a student’s working memory is overloaded, they may not understand the content being taught.
With practice, and strategies to minimise cognitive load, information can be automatically recalled from long-term memory, freeing up the working memory to learn new information.
This paper examines evidence-based practices that can be implemented by schools to enhance literacy and numeracy performance. Educating students in literacy and numeracy is a key responsibility of schools as literacy and numeracy are ‘foundational skills’ that underpin the subsequent development of more complex skills. Literacy and numeracy skills also underpin workforce participation, productivity and the broader economy, and can impact on social and health outcomes. Individuals without these skills are at risk of not being able to participate in the workforce or engage fully in social and civic life.
Intervene early and maintain the focus
Research shows that access to quality early childhood education programs makes a significant and long-term difference to children’s development in many areas, including their cognitive development. Early intervention needs to be followed by continued high quality learning experiences to maintain efficacy. The first three years of school are a peak window within which children develop the literacy and numeracy skills that they will carry into upper primary and secondary school.
Know what students can do and target teaching accordingly
There is a wide range of learning achievement amongst students in Australian schools. Targeted teaching can lift the performance of students who are many years behind and also challenge students who are already well ahead of year-level expectations. In order to implement targeted teaching effectively, teachers need accurate information about what students know and are ready to learn next. This information can be acquired through the use of formative assessment which has been shown to have a significant effect on learning across the spectrum.
Have clear and transparent learning goals
Research shows that having clear and transparent learning goals at both the school and classroom level leads to improvements in learning achievement. Evidence shows that students who experience explicit teaching practices perform better than students who do not. Explicit teaching practice involves teachers clearly showing students what to do and how to do it, rather than having students discover or construct this information for themselves. Well-defined learning continua or progressions support explicit teaching by enabling teachers to understand what is to be learned and to determine accurately students’ current learning achievement.
Focus on teacher professional learning that improves the teaching of literacy and numeracy
High-quality teaching is the greatest in-school influence on student engagement and outcomes. Quality professional learning increases teaching quality. Research indicates that professional learning is most effective if it deepens teachers’ content knowledge and knowledge about how students learn that content; is supported by the wider school community and is seen as part of achieving whole school goals; and is linked to clear and relevant goals that are related to student outcomes.
The information on this page is also available as a one-page summary (PDF, 162kB).
Evaluator company/business: NSW Department of Education and Training, Catholic Education Commission of NSW
URL or PDF: Download the Successful language learners report (PDF, 588kB).
Summary: The Successful Language Learners Whole-school English as a Second Language and Literacy project aimed to improve the English language, literacy and numeracy performance of students learning English as a Second Language (ESL), including refugee students. To achieve this, a multifaceted, integrated approach based on research about what works in schools with high concentrations of ESL learners was used. Eleven NSW schools were involved in the two-year pilot program. The schools were ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse. Data from ESL Scales, SSL Assessment Banks and NAPLAN results were used to evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies in the program. Significant improvements were made by students over the course of the project.
The Improving Literacy and Numeracy National Partnership (PDF, 2MB) publication outlines evidence-based approaches to lift the performance of students in literacy and numeracy, particularly for students who are falling behind and require extra support.
The partnership builds on the most successful strategies implemented in the previous National Partnership on Literacy and Numeracy, recognising the importance of:
• a whole-school approach to quality teaching
• inspirational leadership towards a culture of continuous school improvement
• using evidence and data to identify and address students' needs, using the most effective resources
• building capacity through professional learning
• collaboration and shared responsibility.