Posted by: Gregory Linton | 02/01/2010

How Traditional Education Promotes Cognitive Overload

Why don’t students remember what we teach? Again and again I have heard professors offer that lament, and I have asked that question many times myself. Let me offer a couple of examples from my own experience. In the fall semester, I teach Pauline Literature, which builds on the foundation of knowledge laid in the Acts of the Apostles course the previous spring. At times in the past, I have conducted a one-session review of Acts by means of a team competition, and I have discovered that most students remember little or nothing that they “learned” in Acts.

Lack of retention of knowledge is also evident in the Bible comprehension test that my college requires of students. As juniors, they must achieve the freshmen average score or else they must take one more remedial course. The average score on this test is 60%! And about 1 out of 5 students fail to achieve the minimum score. If the test accurately evaluates what students have learned (and I have good reasons to believe that in fact it doesn’t), then many of them have apparently learned very little. I have also had several conversations recently with juniors and seniors who have admitted how little they actually remember from the ten to twelve Bible courses that they have taken.

The goal of teaching is to promote the passage of information, knowledge, and skills from the short-term, or working, memory into the long-term memory, a process referred to as “encoding.” Long-term memory consists of both factual (sometimes called “declarative” or “semantic”) knowledge and procedural knowledge (Willingham, 2009). The long-term memory develops schemas (patterns or “conceptual frameworks”) to promote the retention of information (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000). The possession of such conceptual knowledge distinguishes the expert from a novice in any given field.

We know that students will not be able to recall everything they learn in our classes, but we hope that they will be able to retrieve fluently certain key facts, concept, principles, and procedures from the long-term memory into the working memory so that they can be used in other contexts. Cognitive scientists refer to this quick recall as “automation.” Some educational theorists prefer the term “deep learning” to describe this goal of education (Marton & Booth, 1997).

The classic understanding of “working memory” was formulated by G. A. Miller (1956), who developed the well-established formula that the working memory can retain seven +/- two items of information. However, when a person is required to process and not just hold information, those limits are reduced to two or three items of information. In the last twenty-five years, other researchers have built on Miller’s proposal, resulting in the fascinating field of “cognitive load theory” (Sweller, van Merrienboer, & Pass, 1998; Clark, Nguyen, & Sweller, 2006).

Unfortunately, our educational system seems constructed intentionally to prevent the passage of knowledge from the short-term memory into long-term memory. Our policies and our pedagogy set up barriers to deep learning by promoting cognitive overload.

In particular, the traditional course schedule results in overloading short-term memory so that information is dumped before it can be processed in the long-term memory. It also promotes interference from competing inputs so that the long-term memory cannot develop the schemas or patterns necessary for deep learning.

For example, after my class ends, students will run to another class on an unrelated subject that begins ten minutes later. As they focus attention on the new inputs into the short-term memory, everything they just learned in my class gets pushed out of their working memory before it has a chance to be encoded in long-term memory.

We professors regularly violate the limits of working memory in the course of a 50- or 75-minute period by presenting too many unconnected facts, allowing little time for reflection and rehearsal of those facts, engaging in long and complicated chains of logic, and failing to connect new knowledge with previous understanding. And then pile on top of our own contribution to cognitive overload two or three more class sessions that students will attend that same day, and it is understandable why we so often lament how little our students seem to retain from what we teach.

In addition, my class meets twice a week. In between the Tuesday session and Thursday session, the students have attended four to five other class sessions. Then from Thursday to next Tuesday, so much has happened to them that they can remember little of what we talked about the week before. Spreading out the learning over a 14- or 15-week semester makes learning even more disjointed and incoherent. This ineffective approach to education is derisively termed the “Instruction Paradigm” by John Tagg. It is the paradigm that predominates in higher education even though the evidence (especially surveys of employers) shows how little it accomplishes.

In the next post, I will suggest a better approach to structuring the sequence of learning so that deep learning results.


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., and Cocking, R. R. (Eds.) (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Clark, R., Nguyen, F., and Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Marton, F., and Booth, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. J. G., and Paas, F. G. W. C. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review, 10(3), 251-296.

Tagg, J. (2003). The learning paradigm college. Boston, MA: Anker.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


  1. […] Traditional Structure Impedes Learning By lizzylearns […]

  2. […] exclusively about technology, I was interested in the concerns of Dr. Greg Linton, in his post on cognitive overload Dr. Linton expresses concern that the very structure of the typical school day and school year […]

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