How People Learn: Memory and Cognitive Load

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You found the perfect YouTube video to learn something you’ve been struggling with. But the background music is too damn loud for you to focus on the content!

Your professor is brilliant, but their online tutorial has cluttered slides and it is not clear how the pictures and labels correspond.

Both of these are examples of extraneous cognitive load, also known as extraneous cognitive processing. These are scenarios in which the learner is unable to focus just on learning, because there are other things tugging at their attention, like audio that doesn’t aid the learning process, or messy slides that are hard to decipher.

Last time, we covered how the mind organizes information under the Schema Theory. Understanding how a learner approaches and integrates new information is helpful when considering design.

Now, let’s take a look at how the mind works on information and compares it to existing schema. We are still considering the mind from the information processing view as we continue on to take a look at Cognitive Load Theory.

Cognitive Load Theory

As we discussed previously, short-term memory is where a learner takes in new information and works on it.

Now, as learners progress through a learning experience, perhaps an online tutorial or a course assignment, their minds are working hard to pay attention, to stay motivated, and to process the new information being presented to them through their existing schemata. The short-term memory, their working memory, is also working very hard. Perhaps they are creating entirely an entirely new schema. This really is work!

The trouble is that the working memory is very limited. Remember the magic number? Most people can only store about 7 things in short-term memory, plus or minus two. This is referred to in the information processing view as limited capacity (Mayer, 2008).

The working memory becomes overloaded very quickly, particularly if the learning experience is asking them to remember too much information. And the overload happens even faster if the learning task is designed poorly.

Mayer (2008) describes three modes of cognitive processing: extraneous, essential, and generative.

Extraneous cognitive processing “does not support the instructional goal and is caused by ineffective presentation format.” Think of jaunty music in the background of a video, or an overly cluttered slide in a tutorial. These are examples of extraneous processing: unnecessary strains on the working memory as it struggles to retain relevant information. This concept is also known as extraneous cognitive load.

Essential cognitive processing is required to learn. Essential cognitive processing is “needed to mentally represent the presented material…and is caused by the complexity of the material to be learned.” This concept is also known as intrinsic cognitive load. 

Finally, generative cognitive processing is where the magic happens: it refers to “deeper cognitive processing (i.e. the processes of organizing and integrating…) and is primed by the learner’s motivation to understand the material.” This process happens once the working memory is ready to move this information on to long-term memory, to integrate it into existing schemata. The resources used for this process are also known as germane resources, or germane cognitive load.

Overflowing cup

What happens when extraneous cognitive load is too much for a mind!

The bad news is that extraneous cognitive processing and essential cognitive processing are additive (Sweller, Ayres, & Kalyuga, 2011): together they may overwhelm the working memory. There is only so much processing power available in short-term memory, and extraneous cognitive processing may take up resources better devoted to the learning process.

The good news is that extraneous processing may be managed by the instructional designer. A well-designed learning experience minimizes extraneous processing as much as possible. Remove the jaunty music, tidy up slides, and structure and present new information in a way that fits how the mind works. An effective learning experience lets the learner focus on learning and assists them in the generative cognitive process.

Meaningful learning happens when people are engaged, focused, able to incorporate new material into a new schema, or an existing schema, and finally incorporate it with what they already know (Mayer, 2008).

Strategies for Educators

Mayer (2008) suggests pretraining learners with important keywords and foundational knowledge to help manage essential processing. You may also provide learners with a graphic organizer that they may fill in to help learn the new concepts and incorporate them into a schema. Asking learners to complete their own graphic organizers helps manage essential cognitive load and helps them with generative processing.

For elearning designers, manage extraneous processing by removing things that don’t support learning. Carefully consider every element of a tutorial or multimedia experience and if it supports learning or distracts from it.

Keep the mind in mind as you design learning experiences!


Mayer, R.E. (2008). 18. Information Processing. In T.L. Good (Ed.), 21st century education: A Reference handbook (vol. 1). Sage Publications, Inc.

Sweller, J., Ayres, P., & Kalyuga, S. (2011). Chapter 5: Intrinsic and Extraneous Cognitive Load. Cognitive Load Theory. Springer.