Reduce extraneous load

How to optimise attention for learning

G’day 👋

Welcome to Thursday, the best day before Friday. In this weeks’ Snacks, we’re pivoting to a new theme, all about managing cognitive load for learning.

Big idea 🍉

Humans can only attend to so much at once. We can help our students think more about their learning by removing extraneous cognitive demands. Let’s dive in:

One of the core constraints of human cognitive architecture is the limited capacity of our working memory. We can only attend to and think about a very small number of things at once. Just like when we attempt to juggle too many balls, if we overload our working memory, things end up all over the floor.

This simple idea is the basis of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), and has far reaching implications for learning and teaching.

"I’ve come to the conclusion Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know."

Dylan Wiliam

CLT is a collection of instructional recommendations grounded in the science of how people learn. One of the core tenets of Sweller's theory is that the cognitive load our students experience is composed of two types: intrinsic and extraneous.

Intrinsic load refers to working memory capacity that gets consumed by the things we want our students to be learning about. It is an inevitable and desirable part of learning (as long as it doesn't overload capacity). It is what we want our students' minds to be occupied with.

Extraneous load is anything that occupies our students' minds that is not the thing we intend them to learn. Such as distractions in the environment or the structure of learning activities themselves.

The more our students' working memories are consumed by extraneous sources of load, the less they have available for learning. Which is why several of the teaching strategies advocated by CLT entail the reduction of extraneous load.

In coming snacks, we will look at exactly this: strategies for reducing extraneous load and maximising available attention for learning.

Note → The nature of education makes cognitive overload a constant risk. We are continually exploring unfamiliar material with our students and setting them tasks they cannot yet do. This risk is exacerbated by our own relative familiarity with the material we are teaching. Expert induced blindness makes us prone to underestimating the complexity of tasks and so overestimating the load our students can comfortably bear.

🎓 For more on CLT, see Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later, by Sweller et al.

How much of your students’ attention is directed towards the thing you’re trying to get them to learn? What else might they be thinking about?


• When we try to mentally juggle too much at once, we end up dropping all the balls.

• Cognitive load can arise from intrinsic sources (the thing to be learned) or extraneous sources (the learning process or distractions).

• The more we reduce extraneous load, the more attention our students have available for learning.

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Peps 👊