The Cognitive Load Theory is a cognitive psychological learning theory that considers working memory a critical factor in learning. The central idea of the Cognitive Load Theory can be summarized as follows: Learners’ mental activity should focus on the learning content (intrinsic cognitive load). Integration into existing knowledge is also important (germane cognitive load). Extraneous loads (extrinsic cognitive load) not related to learning should be minimized.

Examples of extraneous loads include:

  • Establishing connections between images and legends that are spatially far apart.
  • Listening to background music.
  • Simultaneously reading and listening to verbal information (such as texts being read aloud).
  • Processing already known information.

The list can go on. Proponents of the Cognitive Load Theory have conducted extensive research on learning with images and animations.

The Cognitive Load Theory is subject to criticism for various reasons, such as its strong focus on learning as information intake. Regardless, the research provides guidance for everyday design practices.


  • SWELLER, John (1999): Instructional Design. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press (Australian Education Review 43).
  • MAYER, Richard E. (2001): Multimedia Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.