Metacognition and Cognitive Load Theory

This blog is not a shameless attempt to boost Class Teaching’s monthly visitor stats by combing two educational zeitgeists.


However, it is fair to say a lot of keyboards have been collectively tapped over the past few months creating blogs and tweets about these two heavyweights from the world of evidence-informed practice.

Indeed, the oft-quoted Dylan Wiliam described cognitive load theory as the “single most important thing for teachers to know,” while the Education Endowment Foundation rates metacognition alongside feedback as the intervention likely to have the greatest positive effect on learning.

The truth is though, that the two are closely connected, and so to apply the theories with fidelity (i.e. in the manner they were intended) both must be understood, as must the relationship between them.

CLT and MC

Put simply the relationship is thus: cognitive overload is the enemy of learning, while metacognition can be learning’s best friend.  Therefore, we can exploit the benefits of metacognition in order to manage cognitive load effectively.

More precisely, the language of cognitive load offers us a more exact understanding of some of the greatest challenges to learning, while the six stages of metacognition offer us a framework to help manage cognitive load and help our pupils cope with these challenges.

As with all written models of thinking and learning the above diagrams are both deeply flawed.  Thinking is far more messy than they suggest.  However, they do provide a basis for our understanding of the relationship between these two ideas.

Cognitive load theory, developed by John Sweller, offers a model to help understand the load our working memory can hold at any one time, and what specific factors either maximise or inhibit our working memory capacity.  As the diagram suggests intrinsic load (the inherent challenge of the task) must be managed, extraneous load (elements that may occupy working memory beyond the prescribed task) must be reduced and germane load (pre-existing memories that support the new knowledge) must be maximised.

Metacognition can be of particular help in both managing the intrinsic load and maximising the germane load.

The particular way it can support managing the intrinsic load is through the teaching of metacognitive strategies to support the completion of complex tasks.

For example our MFL department at Durrington had been finding that their students struggled with the photo task on their GCSE speaking exams.  The task is highly challenging, multi-faceted and required students to complete substantial planning.

In order to support students the department broke the planning element of the task into 5 separate steps, produced a knowledge organiser which scaffolded these steps and used the 7 step model (shown below) to explicitly teach how to complete them in sequence.


By doing so the department had managed the intrinsic load of the task.  It had not become inherently less challenging but by giving students a metacognitive approach to follow the department had equipped students to chunk the task.  This would mean they would deal with one section of planning at a time, thereby reducing the cognitive load they would be experiencing at any one time during its completion.

Metacognitive strategies such as this may come easily to subject experts but for novices they must be explicitly taught.  If not challenging tasks will always create cognitive overload and therefore be at high risk of being tackled unsuccessfully.

Furthermore, metacognition can support through the maximising of germane load.  Metacognition requires students to reflect on past experience in order to inform future or current learning.  By doing so they can tether the learning they are doing to similar past experiences and as a result support the learning taking place.  This is because students will have to devote less of their working memory capacity to thinking about how to complete the task (the procedure) and therefore have more available to apply the new content (or knowledge) they are dealing with.

A word of warning however.  Teaching metacognitive processes could potentially have the opposite effect on cognitive load.  For example if you wanted students to improve their metacognitive regulation through greater evaluation, and your way of doing so was to add further instructions to an already complex task that were intended to encourage self-reflection, you may be unwittingly adding to the intrinsic cognitive load of the task.  Therefore always consider when you move to the explicit teaching of metacognition, that it should be a separate phase of learning and not a bolt-on.

Certainly combining these two theories is a head-scratcher.  However, to implement the lessons of either one effectively we must consider the other alongside.

Posted by Chris Runeckles

This entry was posted in General Teaching, Teaching Forums and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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