Advance Organizers and Cognitive Load Theory


Ausubel and Advance Organizers

Ausubel believed that the information we store in our brains is organized into different concept categories. The larger concept categories, which he called anchors, help us organize all the other pieces of information we take in. If we can tie new information to the existing organizational structure, or anchors, then we will be better able to retain that new information. Basically, if we can organize and link new information to what we already know, we have a better chance of remembering it. Ausubel proposed the use of advance organizers to bridge this gap.

According to Ausubel, any general introductory information presented, in any form, prior to a lesson is an advance organizer. Current researchers have elaborated on this definition and have attempted to define different forms advance organizers might take.

Why Use Advance Organizers?

  • Advance organizers are easy to create and use since they can take many forms.
  • They are general in format, allowing flexibility in applying them to different learning situations.
  • Research has shown that the use of advance organizers increases student achievement, but expository organizers have the greatest positive impact on achievement.

Types of Organizers with Applications
1. Expository

  • Specifically telling students what they are going to learn or explaining the instruction's general ideas in advance
  • Displaying/reviewing the lesson's objectives
  • Reviewing definitions that students will come across before a lesson

2. Narrative

  • Telling a story to prepare students for the instruction

3. Skimming

  • Having students review the textbook or literature before starting the instruction
  • SQ3R type activities

4. Graphic

  • Flow charts
  • Word webs
  • Story maps
  • Venn diagrams

It is important to note that Ausubel believed advance organizers worked best with students that had difficulty fitting new information into their existing knowledge base. Therefore, advance organizers will work best with students that struggle to organize new information.

In addition, advance organizers tend to work best with information that is disorganized. Do not spend time re-organizing information that is already organized in a logical manner.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)

Cognitive load theory is primarily concerned with faciliating the learning of complex tasks. Learning takes place when information in our long-term memory is combined with new information. The combining takes place in our working memory. Since our working memory is limited in the amount of information it can hold and process at once, cognitive load theorists have focused on ways of freeing up space in working memory for task processing.

Working memory load is determined by the complexity of the task to be learned (intrinsic cognitive load) and the instructional methods used to deliver the task information (extraneous cognitive load). The cognitive space left over to process the new information is called germane cognitive load. If these three loads, when added all together, exceed the resources available in working memory, learning will not take place. Therefore, CLT research had focused on methods for reducing extraneous cognitive load and, more recently, intrinsic cognitive load.

Why use CLT?

  • Understanding the cognitive limits of working memory is beneficial for determining the instructional method for delivery of complex material
  • CLT research can guide instructional designers in materials selection or creation
  • Research based strategy that improves the conditions for learning to take place
  • Can be applied to any content field

Applications for CLT

1. Decreasing Extraneous Cognitive Load

  • Use worked problems for studying before trying practice problems
  • Use completion problems to focus learners on the skills currently being taught
  • Provide a simple visual representation of a task and orally explain the steps rather than including text
  • Choose one integrated piece of material for use, rather than different materials for learners to shuffle through

2. Decreasing Intrinsic Cognitive Load

  • Break complex tasks into smaller, independently taught tasks. Teach the tasks together at the end for full learning.
  • Have learners complete all steps in a task, but in a simplified manner. As learners master each simplified round of the task, add complexity to each of the steps until the entire task, in all its complexity, has been learned.

Which Theory is Best?

Neither theory is necessarily better than the other. They each can be used in almost any instructional setting. Instead, the two theories should be used together to create the best learning conditions possible. Principles of CLT research should guide in the design and use of advance organizers in instruction.


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Ivie, S.D. (1998). Ausubel’s learning theory: An approach to teaching higher order thinking skills. The High School Journal, 82(1), 35-42. Retrieved from

Marzano, R.J., Pickering, D.J., & Pollock, J.E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. [Kindle e-book version].

Pass, F., Renkl, A., & Sweller, J. (2003). Cognitive load theory and instructional design: Recent developments. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 1-4. Retrieved from

Pass, F., Van Gog, T. & Sweller, J. (2010). Cognitive load theory: New conceptualizations, specifications, and integrated research perspectives. Educational Pyschology Review, 22, 115-121. doi: 10.1007/s10648-010-9133-8

Van Merriënboer, J. & Sweller, J. (2005). Cognitive load theory and complex learning: Recent developments and future directions. Educational Psychology Review, 17(2). doi: 10.1007/s10648-005-3951-0

Willingham, D. (2009). Why don’t students like school? Because the mind is not designed for thinking. American Educator, Spring, 4-13. Retrieved from

Created By A. Allen