First I must explain that there is a difference between empirical research findings and the theoretical formulations that human researchers create to explain their findings. To reiterate, we have:
- research findings (data)
- theoretical explanations (rationales that researchers invent)
The data can be true, while the theoretical explanations can be wrong.
Academic researchers are paid the big bucks---and gain the highest psychic rewards---for developing theories.
As you know if you've followed my work for any length of time, I put much more faith in data than in theories.
So, while I am about to share criticisms of a theory, I think the research findings are still sound.
Here are some recent criticisms of Cognitive Load Theory:
Ton de Jong says:
What has cognitive load theory brought to the field of educational design? The three main recommendations that come from cognitive load theory are: present material that aligns with the prior knowledge of the learner (intrinsic load), avoid non-essential and confusing information (extraneous load), and stimulate processes that lead to conceptually rich and deep knowledge (germane load). These design principles have been around in educational design for a long time (see e.g., Dick and Carey 1990; Gagne´ et al. 1988; Reigeluth 1983). Work in cognitive load theory often denies the existence of this earlier research, as illustrated in the following quote by Ayres (2006a, p. 288): ‘‘Whereas strategies to lower extraneous load are well documented…methods to lower intrinsic load have only more recently been investigated’’ (p. 288). In his study, Ayres introduces part-tasks as one of the initial approaches to lower cognitive load. Describing this as a ‘‘recent’’ approach denies much of the history of instructional design.
de Jong, T. (2010). Cognitive load theory, educational research, and instructional design: Some food for thought. Instructional Science, 38(2), 105-134.
Roxana Moreno says:
Under the light of CLT’s [Cognitive Load Theory's] fundamental limitations, I will make the argument that continuing to use the theory to frame instructional design research is instilling the idea that educational research cannot aspire to have the same scientific value as that of the hard sciences (Diamond 1987). The following are some reasons why this might be the case. When educational researchers are not able to demonstrate that they are making progress, they give further reasons to believe that the learning sciences are a lesser form of knowledge (Labaree 1998). Second, although a strength of CL research is the use of controlled experimental studies—one of the exemplary methods of scientifically based research (Eisenhart and Towne 2003)—it has failed to develop adequate methods that permit direct investigation of the research questions at stake. Science relies on measurements or observational methods that provide reliable and valid data across studies by the same or different investigators (National Research Council 2002).
Third, in any science, researchers construct towers of knowledge on the foundations of the work of others. de Jong raises a valid concern about the fact that CL research often ignores the existence of earlier research and theories that may better account for the findings than CLT. The dangers of this isolated approach to science are clearly stated by Labaree (1998) ‘‘At the end of long and distinguished careers, senior educational researchers are likely to find that they are still working on the same questions that confronted them at the beginning. And the new generation of researchers they have trained will be taking up these questions as well (p. 9).’’
Lastly, although bias may not be completely avoidable, scientists are expected to be aware of potential bias sources in their work. One safeguard against bias in any area of study is to be open to reflection and scrutiny. It is the professional responsibility of educational researchers to evaluate the state of current knowledge on a regular basis, identify knowledge gaps, and lay the scientific principles for future investigation. Engaging in this ‘effortful’ practice is key in fostering a scientific community and culture.
Moreno, R. (2010). Cognitive load theory: More food for thought. Instructional Science, 38(2), 135-141.
Schnotz and Kurschner (2007) say:
Numerous empirical studies have demonstrated that traditional instruction can and should be re-designed according to principles of cognitive load theory, and that this re-design results in better learning. However, there are also numerous conceptual problems related to cognitive load theory, which sometimes make interpretation of empirical findings difficult. Although the concept of cognitive load has been frequently described in general terms and although definitions have been provided for different kinds of cognitive load, a closer look reveals that the exact nature of these different kinds of load is not sufficiently clear yet. Further clarification is needed regarding the relations between different kinds of cognitive load and whether they can and how they should be manipulated to enhance learning. Other open questions refer to the role of working memory in the process of learning. Although working memory is a key concept in cognitive load theory, it is not sufficiently clear to what extent working memory is in fact required for learning. Finally, further clarification is needed whether and in which way different kinds of cognitive load constrain each other, how they relate to the process of learning and, last not least, how they can be measured.
Schnotz, W., & Kurschner, C. (2007). A reconsideration of cognitive load theory. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 469–508.
So, the theory is shaky, even though it has generated a slew of great research.
The data is still compelling, so, among other things, we can still use worked examples.
- Worked examples are useful for novice learners.
- Worked examples may hurt more experienced learners. Better to utilize practice problems for more experienced learners.