Cognitive Load Theory: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Loads

September 12, 2023

Cognitive Load Theory

The Cognitive Load Theory states that an individual’s working memory is impacted by factors that can decrease the memory function. These factors, known as loads, are divided into three categories: intrinsic, extrinsic, and germane.

Only intrinsic and extrinsic loads are controllable. Germane load refers to IQ; individual intelligence impacts how much information can be stored in the working memory. IQ varies slightly throughout an individual’s lifetime, but intellectual ability remains fairly fixed.

What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic loads?  Here’s what to know about intrinsic vs. extrinsic loads and how these load types impact reading.

What are Intrinsic Loads?

Intrinsic load refers to the level of difficulty of a new task or skill. For example, learning how to solve a basic linear equation could be simple for an individual whose mind learns math easily. Others, though, might find that the intrinsic load of algebra is overwhelming.

Everyone has overwhelming intrinsic loads unique to them. However, individuals with lower than average intelligence might find scholastic-related skills to be more difficult than their higher-IQ peers. For individuals with a high germane load (i.e. a lower IQ), the intrinsic load of learning a new skill results in a load burden. Learning could be incredibly difficult, and educators would need to break new lessons or skills into chunks to ease the burden.

Learning also could be impacted by extrinsic loads. What are extrinsic loads and why are they important to understand?

What to Know About Extrinsic Loads

Extrinsic loads refer to external factors that negatively impact learning a new skill or subject matter. A new subject or lesson does not need to be difficult to cause learning struggles. External factors lead to distraction or discomfort that causes an individual to feel overwhelmed or even unable to fully process and learn something new. In addition, the way a teacher presents the subject might confuse a student or be distracting.

Sensory examples of extrinsic loads include:

  • Temperature sensitivities (the room might be too hot or too cold)
  • Loud noises or distracting sounds
  • Uncomfortable clothing
  • Displeasing aromas
  • Distracting lights or visuals

Individuals who become overwhelmed by extrinsic loads are sensitive or easily distracted by a sensory issue. Some individuals with autism might be overwhelmed by numerous sensory stimuli; for example, a tag on a shirt could be too scratchy, and the room might be too loud.

These external factors make it difficult–perhaps even impossible–to effectively learn something new. Extrinsic load burdens are the reason why some students wear headphones, and why others might bring a jacket or a sweater.

Understanding sensory sensitivities can help an individual overcome this particular cognitive load burden. A student might take a test in an alternate setting or wear headphones. Another student might need to sit in a ‘wobble seat’ that allows them to fidget while learning; students might require unique solutions to aid learning.

In addition, extrinsic loads are related to how a teacher presents information. Overwhelming graphs or disorganized explanations could lead to confusion. Some students are auditory learners, while others learn better by reading the material; thus a long lecture about a subject could result in learning loss or cognitive burden for some students.

Cognitive Load Theory

The Burden of the Loads

There is a belief that intrinsic load is fixed. This understanding informs how subjects are broken down related to difficulty by grade level. It would be an overwhelming cognitive load to teach a second-grade student algebra; they need to focus on simpler math skills. Most educators would agree that teaching algebra in ninth grade is appropriate, as students already mastered other math skills necessary to learn to solve more complex problems.

However, the difficulty of the task is impacted by both germane and extrinsic loads. It is easy for a second-grader who is a genius (by IQ) to learn skills and lessons beyond the presumed ability based on their age. Intelligence impacts the ease of learning.

In addition, extrinsic factors overwhelm or aid learning. A child who learns best by listening could enjoy reading books and gain greater proficiency if they listen to the story as they read. Another student might find this mode of learning to be distracting.

Understanding Cognitive Load Theory helps educators tailor learning experiences for each student and their needs. Again, children who feel overwhelmed by sensory stimuli require a learning environment that removes these distractions. Teachers can utilize alternative environments for testing, integrating preferences for seating, or encouraging students to use headphones to drown out distractions.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load and Reading

The task of reading is a fixed intrinsic load at each grade level. However, while the load remains fixed related to the difficulty and age-appropriateness of the task, a child’s intelligence and their unique response to external factors or extrinsic loads impacts the ease of learning to read.

There are numerous types of reading struggles, and millions of children struggle to read. Educators also now understand the impact of the methodologies they use to teach students how to read. For this reason, many school districts are pivoting to instruction that focuses on the Science of Reading.

In the past, educators used lessons to teach reading that relied less on teaching phonics (and decoding) skills and more on encouraging children to decipher the words using pictures as clues. For children who understood the sounds of letters and knew how to effectively sound out words to properly decode them, this method did not extrinsically overload them. However, many children did not gain reading proficiency from this method of instruction.

The Nation’s Report Card shows just how poorly the nation’s children read. Only one out of every three fourth graders scores proficient or above in reading. The statistics are worse for eighth graders. The reality is that reading proficiency is now not the norm.

Scores for reading and other subjects dropped post-Covid, reflecting the impact of lost learning and perhaps absenteeism, too. More children have accrued absences related to mental health struggles as well as other struggles, and chronic absenteeism is on the rise.

Teaching children to read successfully means that schools had to reevaluate their current curriculum. What they realized was that teaching children to guess a word based on pictures was not a successful strategy, and likely has never been a successful strategy.

Boosting reading proficiency requires an instruction strategy that simply and impactfully teaches children the core fundamentals of reading. The Science of Reading incorporates different documented and successful types of reading instruction to create a successful curriculum. The Science of Reading shows what works, and the most successful reading curricula include phonics lessons as well as instruction on phonological awareness.

Students need to learn and master the letters of the alphabet and the sounds of each letter. They need to identify how these letters and sounds blend together to make a word. This is the easiest and most effective strategy for teaching children how to read.

While previous literacy curricula likely increased the cognitive load for some children who found this instruction to be confusing, the Science of Reading simplifies the task of reading by focusing on the core element behind reading success. That core element is the mastery of reading’s code: phonics (and the alphabet).

Simplify the Extrinsic Load with These Strategies

Many schools have already made the pivot to the Science of Reading. However, just because the school uses proven and science-based instruction does not mean that a child will read with ease. Parents need to remember that other extrinsic loads impact the successful processing of any skill.

Children could be distracted by noise, temperature, or even by an illness. Once parents understand that a child’s extrinsic load is pushing them towards feeling overloaded, they can work with educators to remediate the learning environment. Children with learning disorders might have an IEP that outlines any necessary accommodations that help alleviate distraction and learning distress.

Educators understand that all children learn differently. Understanding Cognitive Load Theory helps parents identify areas that could impact their child’s learning success and find help to remove load burdens.