Optimizing Educational Outcomes: Applying Cognitive Load Theory to Instructional Design


This session provides participants with a working understanding of Cognitive Load Theory and strategies for the application of key elements and principles in the design and analysis of physical therapist educational learning activities and curricula.

Methods and/or Description of Project

This educational session will focus on the understanding Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and its application to instructional design in physical therapist education. Principles of CLT will be applied to the teaching and learning of clinical reasoning in an entry-level curriculum. Examples of how grounding the design of learning activities in sound educational theory such as CLT will be discussed.


Participants will be provided with key concepts from Cognitive Load Theory that are directly applicable to the type of complex learning required for excellence in Physical Therapist education. Additionally participants will be introduced to educationally sound, evidence-based strategies to guide the design of teaching and learning activities appropriate for the level of the learner.

Conclusions/Relevance to the conference theme: The Pursuit of Excellence in Physical Therapy Education

Achievement of excellence in physical therapy education depends upon the ability of an educational program to prepare students for today’s complex practice environment. Applying educational theory grounded in an understanding of human cognitive architecture, such as Cognitive Load Theory, to the intentional design of curricula provides a framework to achieve this excellence. Instructional design informed by an awareness of the types of load placed on the working memory capacity of learners is essential to achievement of optimal learning outcomes. Additionally, sound educational design provides a foundation from which to generate high quality educational research.


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Leppink J, Paas F, Van Gog T, van der Vleuten C. P. M, van Merrienboer J.
Effects of pairs of problems and examples on task performance and different types of
cognitive load. Learning and Instruction. 2014;30(c):32–42.

Paas F, Ayres P. Cognitive load theory: A broader view on the role of memory in
learning and education. Educational Psychology Review. 2014;26:91–195.

Sweller J. Element interactivity and intrinsic, extraneous, and germane cognitive load.
Educational Psychology Review. 2010;22(2):123–138.

van Merrienboer JJG, Sweller J. Cognitive load theory in health professional education: design principles and strategies. Medical Education. 2010:44;85-93.

van Merrienboer J, Kirschner, P. A. Ten steps to complex learning : a
systematic approach to four-component instructional design (2nd ed.). New York, NY:
Routledge 2012.

Young JQ, Van Merrienboer J, Durning S, Ten Cate O. Cognitive load theory: implications for medical education: AMEE Guide No. 86. Medical Teacher. 2014;36:371-384.

Course Objectives

At the completion of this session, participants will be able to:
1. Discuss the key concepts of Cognitive Load Theory.
2. Apply evidence-based educational principles derived from Cognitive Load Theory to the design of learning activities for all levels of learners.
3. Analyze existing curricular elements through the lens of Cognitive Load Theory.

Instructional Methods

Presentation, Large Group Discussion

Tentative Outline/Schedule

5 minutes
I. Introduction

30 minutes
II. Discussion of key elements of Cognitive Load Theory in relation to complex learning.

15 minutes
III. Application of principles of CLT to designing learning activities at the appropriate level of challenge for the level of learner.

30 minutes
IV. Analysis of clinical reasoning learning activities with Cognitive Load Theory principles
A. Worked example clinical reasoning simulation learning activity
B. Element interactivity illustrated through clinical reasoning curricular thread

10 minutes
Group discussion/Question and Answers

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  • Control #: 2527682
  • Type: Educational Session
  • Event/Year: ELC2016
  • Authors: Susan Grieve, Dr. Nicole Christensen
  • Keywords:

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