The evolution of cognitive load theory and its application to medical education

Jimmie Leppink, Angelique van den Heuvel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) has started to find more applications in medical education research. Unfortunately, misconceptions such as lower cognitive load always being beneficial to learning and the continued use of dated concepts and methods can result in improper applications of CLT principles in medical education design and research. This review outlines how CLT has evolved and presents a synthesis of current-day CLT principles in a holistic model for medical education design. This model distinguishes three dimensions: task fidelity: from literature (lowest) through simulated patients to real patients (highest); task complexity: the number of information elements; and instructional support: from worked examples (highest) through completion tasks to autonomous task performance (lowest). These three dimensions together constitute three steps to proficient learning: (I) start with high support on low-fidelity low-complexity tasks and gradually fade that support as learners become more proficient; (II) repeat I for low-fidelity but higher-complexity tasks; and (III) repeat I and II in that order at subsequent levels of fidelity. The numbers of fidelity levels and complexity levels within fidelity levels needed depend on the aims of the course, curriculum or individual learning trajectory. This paper concludes with suggestions for future research based on this model.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)119-27
Number of pages9
JournalPerspectives on Medical Education
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015

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