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In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. Cognitive load theory was developed out of the study of problem solving by John Sweller in the late 1980s. Sweller argued that instructional design can be used to reduce cognitive load in learners. Cognitive load theory differentiates cognitive load into three types: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. Intrinsic cognitive load is the effort associated with a specific topic. Extraneous cognitive load refers to the way information or tasks are presented to a learner. And germane cognitive load refers to the work put into creating a permanent store of knowledge, or a schema. Researchers Paas and Van Merriënboer developed a way to measure perceived mental effort which is indicative of cognitive load. Task-invoked pupillary response is a reliable and sensitive measurement of cognitive load that is directly related to working memory. Heavy cognitive load can have negative effects on task completion, and it is important to note that the experience of cognitive load is not the same in everyone. The elderly, students, and children experience different, and more often higher, amounts of cognitive load. High cognitive load in the elderly has been shown to affect their center of balance. With increased distractions and cell phone use students are more prone to experiencing high cognitive load which can reduce academic success. Children have less general knowledge than adults which increases their cognitive load.
"Cognitive load theory has been designed to provide guidelines intended to assist in the presentation of information in a manner that encourages learner activities that optimize intellectual performance". John Sweller's theory employs aspects of information processing theory to emphasize the inherent limitations of concurrent working memory load on learning during instruction
Cognitive load theory provides a general framework and has broad implications for instructional design, by allowing instructional designers to control the conditions of learning within an environment or, more generally, within most instructional materials. Specifically, it provides empirically-based guidelines that help instructional designers decrease extraneous cognitive load during learning and thus refocus the learner's attention toward germane materials, thereby increasing germane (schema related) cognitive load. This theory differentiates between three types of cognitive load: intrinsic cognitive load, germane cognitive load, and extraneous cognitive load.
Evidence has been found that individuals systematically differ in their processing capacity. For example, there are individual differences in processing capacities between novices and experts. Experts have more knowledge or experience with regard to a specific task which reduces the cognitive load associated with the task. Novices do not have this experience or knowledge and thus have heavier cognitive load.