Jade Slater considers how an understanding of our memory systems can transform student knowledge retention.

“Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know” (Dylan William)

Memory, Learning and Cognitive Load

The human memory can be divided into the working memory and the long-term memory. The long-term memory is the memory system where large amounts of information are stored semi-permanently in the form of schemas. In contrast, the working memory processes what we are currently doing and can only deal with a limited amount of information – most people can hold four chunks of information in their working memory at one time.

The cognitive load in a task refers to the amount of effort or information processing that is required by the working memory to complete this task.  According to Cognitive Load Theory there are three types of cognitive load:

  1. Intrinsic cognitive load – the inherent difficulty associated with a task or of the material being learnt.
  2. Extraneous cognitive load – this is any difficulty created by how the task is presented for example, some problems may be presented to students with very limited input from the teacher putting an extra, unhelpful load on the working memory. This type cognitive load should be minimized.
  3. Germane cognitive load – this refers to the work put into creating a permanent store of knowledge or to transfer knowledge into the long-term memory.

Learning occurs when information is transferred from the working memory into the long-term memory. Therefore, if the cognitive load of the task is too large the working memory is overloaded, and learning is impaired. Therefore, to increase learning cognitive load should be reduced.

How can this be applied in Business Studies lessons?

  1. Use a ‘simple-to-complex’ approach, where the elements of the material are introduced to the learner in a simple-to-complex order. This may mean introducing the basic knowledge before adding analysis and evaluation. For example, when teaching sources of finance, you would explain what each of the sources was before considering the advantages and drawbacks, and then asking pupils to compare the sources.
  2. Use worked examples when introducing new material to pupils. A ‘worked example’ is a problem that has already been solved for the learner, with every step fully explained and clearly shown. Worked examples are effective because they provide students with fully guided instruction, minimising unnecessary load on students’ working memories. This is crucial when introducing calculations to pupils.
  3. Present information visually (through images) and orally. The modality effect states that the working memory has both visual and auditory channels and so understanding and memory is improved when we present new information in both formats. This means that it is better to use presentations to show images which you then explain, rather than text.
  4. Use direct instruction when introducing new information or ideas, rather than having students discover or construct information for themselves.
  5. Use modelling when completing exam questions to show pupils how to complete them before they attempt this for themselves.
  6. Frequent review/retrieval practice is important as automatic recall frees up the working memory. This can be achieved through the use of a starter quiz with questions on lots of different topics which pupils complete from memory. Lagged homework can also be used to review topics a number of weeks after they have been taught.
  7. Present new material in small steps/chunks. For instance, a lesson on exchange rates may look at what exchanges rate are, how the impact of changes in exchanges rates are calculated and then the impact on businesses in discrete chunks.
  8. Reading and listening both use the verbal channel of the working memory. Therefore, students should not be requested to read text and listen at the same time. For example, allow students to read text from a presentation slide before you explain it verbally.



  • Ashman, (2017) For Ways Cognitive Load Theory Has Changed my Teaching, available at https://gregashman.wordpress.com
  • Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, Cognitive load theory in practice, Examples for the classroom (2018)
  • Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand (2017)
  • Crawford, (2017) Cognitive Load Theory, available at https://furtheredagogy.wordpress.com
  • Reif F (2010) Applying Cognitive Science to Education. Thinking and Learning in Scientific and Other Complex Domains . Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Sweller J (1998) Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science (12): 257–285.


Jade Slater is an Assistant Headteacher at Walton High School, Staffordshire.