Cognitive Load Theory, Executive Function, and Instructional Design – Education Rickshaw

Cognitive Load Theory, Executive Function, and Instructional Design – Education Rickshaw

I recently attended a conference about teaching students with executive functioning challenges. Executive functions are a set of essential cognitive capabilities and skills typically encompassing the three areas of self-control, flexible thinking, and working memory. Depending on which executive function skill or capacity you’re targeting, students can be supported by changing the environment, changing the student, or changing the teaching.

I was pleased to see that much of the conference was about changing the teaching, actually. Almost all of the sessions included strategies for how to design tasks and materials that do not overload students’ working memories, or require them to multitask unnecessarily. While working memory is but one component of executive function, managing the cognitive demand of learning tasks and materials seems well within our control. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a theory of instruction that provided a list of research-based recommendations for how to properly design such tasks and materials?

Of course, there is a theory, and it’s called cognitive load theory (Paas & van Merriënboer, 2020). As cognitive load theory has just about taken over my life due to my PhD comprehensive exams, I was encouraged after the conference to make a quick poster on its implications for students with executive functioning challenges, and indeed, all students, which you’re free to share around:

Like any theory of instruction, it’s likely that most teachers do most of these strategies (i.e. cognitive load “effects”) some of the time. But what would our instruction look like if these recommendations were always attended to? How might an instructional design based on a research-validated cognitive architecture create more opportunities for all of our learners?

The poster’s nice, but here are some more resources on cognitive load theory:

This, from NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, has good materials to create a PD on cognitive load theory for your school.

This for recent developments in cognitive load research.

This is an important article on cognitive load and instructional guidance and this is more of a magazine version of the same thing in the American Educator.

This is for cognitive load and educational technology, but it’s paywalled. See this for ideas of how to get around paywalls.

Here’s an article applying cognitive load theory to teacher training.

Zach Groshell @mrzachg


Paas, F., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2020). Cognitive-Load Theory: Methods to Manage Working Memory Load in the Learning of Complex Tasks. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(4), 394–398.

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