Working Memory: Unlocking the Potential for Learning

by Celia Franzè


  • Have you ever felt like your lesson plan was a complex puzzle, juggling learning intentions, outcomes, key concepts, big ideas and endless activities, pushing your brain to its limits?
  • Do you know the feeling of having too many tabs open in your brain, trying to keep track of proformas, projects, pens (yours), pencilcases (pupils’), parents and Prockeys?
  • Have you ever found yourself in the staffroom, trying to quickly photocopy a handout without being judged, absorbing a new teaching strategy from yesterday’s PD while also grabbing a bite, as if your mind is constantly multitasking?
  • Do you face the challenge of catering to diverse learning needs and integrating technology, while trying to quell mini-revolutions over shared resources in the classroom?


If you answered yes or can resonate with any of the above, you experienced the delicate art of balancing your cognitive load, navigating through the chaos with a smile, all in a day’s work in your role as an educator!

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) posits that our working memory has a limited capacity, which can be easily overwhelmed by too much information at once. It suggests that instructional designs should consider this limitation to enhance learning. This theory aligns seamlessly with the core elements of the ThinkPlus metacurriculum, particularly ‘Neuroplasticity’ and ‘Metacognition.’ Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections, underscores the importance of presenting information in a way that encourages efficient cognitive processing, a principle central to CLT. Metacognition, or the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes, further complements CLT by encouraging learners to actively monitor and regulate the cognitive load they experience during learning activities. By integrating these elements, ThinkPlus fosters an educational environment that not only respects the cognitive limitations of learners but also leverages their innate capacity for growth and self-reflection, thus optimising the learning experience. This blog post briefly introduces CLT and its practical applications in education. Developed by educational psychologist John Sweller, CLT provides a framework for understanding how our working memory processes new information and how this impacts learning.

Key Insights of Cognitive Load Theory
  • Working Memory and Learning: CLT emphasises the limitations of our working memory. When too much information is presented at once, it can overwhelm the learner, hindering understanding and retention.
  • Types of Cognitive Load: CLT identifies three types:
  1. Intrinsic (complexity of the material),
  2. Extraneous (how the material is presented), and
  3. Germane (effort to create meaning and permanent learning).

Effective teaching balances these loads for optimal learning. Explore the table below for five scenarios from everyday classroom practice.

Table 1: Australian Curriculum Learning Scenarios and CLT
Australian Curriculum Learning Scenario Type 1: Intrinsic (complexity of the material) Type 2: Extraneous (how the material is presented) Type 3: Germane (effort to create meaning and permanent learning)  


Multistep Math Problems: An 8-year-old student encounters a series of multistep math problems in their Mathematics class. The process of having to keep intermediate results in mind while solving the next step in a problem can significantly increase cognitive load, especially when dealing with concepts like multiplication and division, which are key focus areas in the Australian Curriculum for Years 3 and 4. The inherent complexity comes from the math concepts themselves, like multiplication and division, which are fundamental yet complex for an 8-year-old. The way these problems are presented, perhaps in a word problem format or with unnecessary information, can add to the cognitive load without aiding understanding. The effort to solve each step of the problem and remember intermediate results contributes to deeper learning and understanding of mathematical concepts.
Complex Reading Comprehension: During English literacy sessions, the student is asked to read a passage and then answer questions that test their comprehension, inferencing, and ability to connect ideas. This activity demands the student to not only decode text but also hold various pieces of information in working memory to make sense of the story, aligning with the literacy component of the curriculum. The complexity here lies in the reading material’s content, requiring understanding of vocabulary, sentence structure, and narrative flow. If the text is presented with challenging fonts, poor layout, or interspersed with irrelevant images, it can distract and hinder comprehension. Engaging with the text to answer questions, make inferences, and connect ideas involves meaningful cognitive effort, aiding in the development of critical reading skills.
Science Experiments: In a Science class focusing on Earth and Space Sciences, the student participates in an experiment to understand the water cycle. Juggling the roles of observer, note-taker, and analyst all at once can overload their cognitive capacity, especially when trying to link the practical activity with theoretical concepts like evaporation and condensation. The scientific concepts of the water cycle, including evaporation, condensation, and precipitation, represent the intrinsic complexity. The setup of the experiment, unclear instructions, or too many simultaneous tasks can increase unnecessary cognitive load.


Observing the experiment’s outcomes and relating them to theoretical concepts involves processing that enhances understanding and retention of scientific principles
History Timelines: While learning about Australian History, the student is tasked with creating a timeline of significant events. This requires them to recall dates, sequence events correctly, and understand the cause-and-effect relationship between historical milestones, a challenge that can stretch their cognitive resources thin The challenge lies in understanding the chronological order of events and their historical significance, a complex task for young learners. Poorly organised information, such as dates and events presented in a confusing manner, can add unnecessary cognitive load.


Constructing the timeline requires meaningful cognitive work, as students organise information and understand cause and effect, solidifying their grasp of history
Art and Creative Writing: In an integrated Art and English task, students are asked to write a creative story and then illustrate it. Switching between creative writing, which demands attention to narrative structure, character development, and vocabulary, and visual arts, which requires a focus on visual expression and technique, can lead to a high cognitive load, reflecting the cross-curricular priorities of fostering creativity and critical thinking. The creative process’s intrinsic complexity involves generating ideas, structuring a story, and translating it into visual art. Instructions that are too open-ended or lack clear expectations can lead to confusion, adding extraneous load. The effort to create a coherent story and accompanying artwork engages students in deep cognitive processes, fostering creativity and reinforcing learning through the integration of narrative and visual expression.
Students with ADHD

Primary school students with ADHD often navigate a unique set of challenges when it comes to CLT. Their journey through learning is a bit like trying to complete a puzzle while the pieces keep moving. This is because ADHD can affect executive functioning and working memory—key players in managing, organising, and recalling information. Imagine your brain as a conductor of an orchestra, where executive functioning keeps the musical sections in harmony. For a student with ADHD, the conductor faces interruptions, making it tough to keep the music flowing smoothly. Working memory is like trying to hold onto several balloons in a windy park; for these students, it’s as if the wind is always a bit stronger. These challenges mean that tasks and concepts that seem straightforward can require extra effort and strategy, turning what might be a gentle hill for some into a steeper climb. For beginning teachers, understanding this can be a game-changer in supporting these students effectively, turning the classroom into a more inclusive and supportive learning environment.

Strategies for the Classroom
  • Simplify Complex Information: Break down challenging topics into smaller, more manageable parts.
  • Use Worked Examples: Initially, guide students through problems step-by-step before transitioning to independent practice.
  • Integrate Dual Coding: Combine visual and verbal materials to support learning. For example, use diagrams alongside verbal explanations.
  • Leverage Prior Knowledge: Connect new information to what students already know, making it more relatable and easier to understand.
  • Adapt Teaching to Learner’s Level: Differentiate instruction based on the learner’s prior knowledge and skills.
Professional Learning Activity

Use the scenarios table above as a professional learning tool by cutting out each cell and have teams try to reconstruct the table.

You will need;

  • a scissors (to cut out table cells)
  • an envelope (place cut out cells into)
  • a piece of A3 paper (for arranging cells and reconstructing table)
  • a glue stick (for pasting cells in place)
  • a timer ( if you want to inject a little competition!)

CLT offers valuable insights into designing and delivering instruction that maximises student learning. By being mindful of how we present information and structuring lessons to align with our students’ cognitive capacities, we can enhance the learning experience and foster deeper understanding.

Supporting ThinkPlus Resources include The Science of Learning, Neuroplasticity and Metacognitive Skill Building Teachers Books.