For our purposes, cognitive load refers to the processing demands placed on working memory capacity during learning. According to the triarchic theory of cognitive load (Sweller, 1999, 2005), there are three types of processing that contribute to cognitive load:
- intrinsic processing – cognitive processing that is essential for the understanding the learning content and is a result of the complexity of the material and the prior knowledge and expertise of the learner;
- extraneous processing – processing that does not directly support learning but is a result of the inherent complexity of the learning environment and interface;
- germane processing – processing that allows the learner to organize the learning content and integrate it with prior knowledge and experience.
Total cognitive load cannot exceed the limits of working memory capacity. Learning is promoted when instructional design minimizes extraneous load in order to free up resources for intrinsic and germane processing, both of which play an essential role in learning. Cognitive load theory (CLT) is robust in that it is supported by reams of evidence, and successfully predicts outcomes particularly for novice learners.