The Science of Memory Systems Part 1 – Episode #1

In this episode we are digging into the The Science of Memory Systems and here are our Big Three Takeaways:

  1. Everything we think about Learning and educational design must be grounded in the science of memory systems
  2. Cognitive load theory provides a critical framework to apply to the science of memory systems to the science of CE
  3. The quickest path to getting a working understanding of cognitive load theory is to begin with the article commissioned by the Association for Medical Education in Europe (AMEE) and written by Young and colleagues entitled, “Cognitive Load Theory: Implications for medical education: AMEE Guide No. 86”


Cognitive Load Title Image

As we will do with every podcast, let’s begin in the authors words with their abstract.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) builds upon established models of human memory that include the subsystems of sensory, working and long-term memory. Working memory (WM) can only process a limited number of information elements at any given time. This constraint creates a ‘‘bottleneck’’ for learning. CLT identifies three types of cognitive load that impact WM: intrinsic load (associated with performing essential aspects of the task), extraneous load (associated with non-essential aspects of the task) and germane load (associated with the deliberate use of cognitive strategies that facilitate learning). When the cognitive load associated with a task exceeds the learner’s WM capacity, performance and learning is impaired. To facilitate learning, CLT researchers have developed instructional techniques that decrease extraneous load (e.g. worked examples), titrate intrinsic load to the developmental stage of the learner (e.g. simplify task without decontextualizing) and ensure that unused WM capacity is dedicated to germane load, i.e. cognitive learning strategies. A number of instructional techniques have been empirically tested. As learners’ progress, curricula must also attend to the expertise-reversal effect. Instructional techniques that facilitate learning among early learners may not help and may even interfere with learning among more advanced learners. CLT has particular relevance to medical education because many of the professional activities to be learned require the simultaneous integration of multiple and varied sets of knowledge, skills and behaviors at a specific time and place. These activities possess high ‘‘element interactivity’’ and therefore impose a cognitive load that may surpass the WM capacity of the learner. Applications to various medical education settings (classroom, workplace and self-directed learning) are explored.

I find that the figure below, from AMEE Guide No. 86 does a great job at simplifying this:

Memory Systems Image from AMEE86


To provide a bit more detail – CLT identifies three types of cognitive load:

  1. Intrinsic load—load associated with the task. Intrinsic load generated by a task cannot be altered by instructional interventions without either simplifying the task to be learned or first enhancing the expertise of the learners by providing preparatory training prior to the task.
  2. Extraneous load—load not essential to the task. Instructional techniques can inadvertently impose extraneous load by, for example, providing insufficient guidance and thereby forcing learners to employ weak problem-solving methods such as trial and error or to search for information needed to complete the task. Similarly, when information necessary for learning is distributed in space (e.g. requiring multiple textbooks or with the physical separation of the written text from the accompanying pictures) or time (e.g. across different lectures), scarce WM resources are used to search for the information and bring it together.
  3. Germane load—load imposed by the learner’s deliberate use of cognitive strategies to reorganize information to make it suitable for storage in LTM, i.e. to learn. There is some debate as to whether germane load constitutes its own category or is best understood as a constituent of intrinsic load. Germane load can be viewed as the learner’s level of concentration devoted to learning (as opposed to performing the task). Germane load is regulated by the individual. When the extraneous and/or intrinsic load are too high and approach or exceed the learner’s WM limits, there will be insufficient WM resources available for the germane load necessary for learning

Within the podcast we spend a fair amount of time explaining why we need to focus our energies on mitigating extraneous load. And, we will dedicate our time in Episode 2 focusing on specific opportunities we have to do this!

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