Professor’s Corner: Cognitive Load
Posted by Kristopher MadayComment

Maday_featured_imageThis is the second part of a 2-part series on memory, learning and medicine.

As we discussed in the previous post on Memory and Learning, there is a complex interaction between the sensory stimuli that learners are bombarded with during school and the cognitive processes to code and file information away in long-term memory for retrieval when they are taking tests or caring for patients. The majority of the process of studying lies in working memory, as this is the “memory playground” where we make associations and rehearse information for easy storage in long-term memory. This interaction between the working memory processes and the long-term memory storage is vital in order to remember information efficiently and correctly.

The problem lies in the fact that working memory is analogous to working online … all the information is right in front of you but it is taking up very little storage space. You could save every single website or page you find individually to your desktop, but it will soon overload your cognitive system, as you will have to go through every single page each time you needed to find something. This is not very efficient and it soon becomes overwhelming. So what do you do? You start putting these pages into folders on your browser so you can organize them to find them easier the next time you need to look for something. These are called schemas, which are organizational strategies that incorporate large amounts of information into smaller storage elements. The most well-known example of schemas are mnemonics. All this leads to the encoding process of long-term memory storage … but the problem is you can only do so many of these tasks at one time. This is what cognitive psychologists call “cognitive load.”  The more complex a task is or the higher amount of new information being presented, the more cognitive load is placed on working memory … the higher the cognitive load, the higher likelihood you will experience information overload.

What exactly is “cognitive load”?

The textbook definition of cognitive load is the total amount of mental activity imposed on working memory at any one instant. This can be broken down into two distinct factors:

            1) The volume of information

            2) The complexity of the tasks

We have all experienced this firsthand. Think about when you drive home from work or school.  You take the same roads and make the same turns day in and day out. You can even talk with somebody on the phone, or get lost in thought, and still get from point A to point B. Now, think about being in a new city or having to take a new route home due to traffic. All of the sudden, you can’t have any distractions because you need all your mental energy to process this new information. This is cognitive load and it can overload your working memory very quickly and easily.

There are three main types of cognitive load and each is unique in how it is applied to learning. Germane cognitive load is the energy required to develop new schemas and organizational strategies. This is regarded as the “good” cognitive load as it is needed in order to process the information in working memory into easily remembered schemas for more efficient recall. Intrinsic cognitive load is the necessary energy needed to learn the task or information being processed. Complex tasks or large volumes of information still need to be processed and this amount of cognitive load does not change and is deemed “necessary” in the learning process. Extraneous cognitive load is the “bad” type and makes up the mental activities that are detrimental to learning by actually interfering with the construction and organization of new schemas. I mentioned in the previous post that reading a slide full of text is not teaching because it places an increased amount of extraneous cognitive load on the students and inhibits the processing of information and construction of schema.


How can students and professors affect cognitive load?

There are many ways students and faculty can increase the germane cognitive load while decreasing the extraneous cognitive load to improve learning and retention. Trying to study each individual disease or condition places a huge intrinsic cognitive load on the learner. Instead, students can start grouping them into schemas of similar presenting signs and symptoms (something we like to call a differential diagnosis) to facilitate recall during patient interviewing. Students can also study different sections together that are related, such as reading over physiology of a disease process while learning the pharmacologic management. Now, instead of memorizing the medications for a disease treatment, the student will start to understand WHY the medication is given in the first place. Some medical school and PA programs have adopted this strategy of block instruction, where students are taught anatomy, physiology, pathology, history and physical exam, pharmacology and clinical medicine for a subsystem (cardiovascular, pulmonary, dermatologic, etc.) over a several week block. One of the benefits of this strategy is to facilitate the construction of schemas by teaching this material in concentrated sections. Faculty can decrease extraneous cognitive load in their teaching style by limiting competing information and not overwhelming the sensory input, as well assist in helping automate already developed schemas by using spaced repetition and reintroducing key concepts from the lecture or previously taught material.

By understanding how information is processed in working memory and the cognitive load that is required, students (and faculty) can develop effective strategies to increase educational efficiency, improve retention and recall and help ease the already stressful process of learning medicine.


  1. What is cognitive load? The eLearning Coach. Available at: Accessed February 8, 2016.
  2. Schnotz W, Kurschner C. A Reconsideration of Cognitive Load Theory. Educ Psychol Rev (2007) 19:469–508.
  3. Bruce Goldstein. Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience. Wadsworth Publishing, 2010
  4. Debue N, van de Leemput, C. What does germane load mean? An empirical contribution to the cognitive load theory.  Frontiers in Psychology.  2014;5(1099):1-12.

ABOUT the author

Kristopher Maday, MS, PA-C, CNSC, is an Assistant Professor and Academic Coordinator in the Physician Assistant Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @PA_Maday.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *