Jeroen J. G. van
Merriënboer talks with ScienceWatch.com and
answers a few questions about this month's Emerging
Research Front Paper in the field of
Article: Cognitive load theory and complex
learning: Recent developments and future
Merrienboer, JJG;Sweller, J
Journal: EDUC PSYCHOL REV, 17 (2): 147-177 JUN 2005
Addresses: Open Univ Netherlands, Educ Technol Expertise
Ctr, POB 2960, NL-6401 DL Heerlen, Netherlands.
Open Univ Netherlands, Educ Technol Expertise Ctr, NL-6401
DL Heerlen, Netherlands.
Univ New S Wales, Kensington, NSW 2033, Australia.
Why do you think your paper is highly
I think the main reason is that it appeals to a broad scientific audience.
My co-author, John Sweller, from the University of New South Wales in
Sydney, Australia, is the founder of cognitive load theory. This popular
theory has a strong basis in cognitive and evolutionary psychology and
provides guidelines for the design of instruction, but it is primarily
applied to teaching simple skills in well-structured domains.
I am interested in teaching highly complex skills in ill-structured
domains, such as medical diagnosis, air traffic control, software
engineering, and so forth. I developed the four-component instructional
design model (4C/ID-model; van Merriënboer, 1997; van Merriënboer
& Kirschner, 2007) for complex learning, which is popular in vocational
and higher professional education.
This article brings the two perspectives together. For cognitive load
researchers, it opens up new roads for doing research on teaching complex
skills; for researchers in complex learning, it provides a new theoretical
perspective strongly grounded in cognitive and evolutionary psychology.
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
The focus of the article is clearly on a synthesis of knowledge and the
creation of a new, promising research line. On the one hand, there is
cognitive load theory with a strong basis in cognitive and evolutionary
psychology. Learning is described as the construction and automation of
cognitive schemas in long-term memory. Experiments use laboratory tasks and
simple school tasks.
"This paper discusses evidence-based
guidelines for complex learning and, more
importantly, sets out a research agenda which
should eventually help to improve the
teaching of complex, critical skills based on
On the other hand, there are models of complex learning with a strong basis
in instructional design and professional training. Learning is described as
the integration of knowledge, routine, and non-routine skills—e.g.,
problem solving, reasoning—and attitudes. Experiments use real-life
tasks as well as professional ones. This article builds a strong bridge
between these two theoretical frameworks and research traditions. It also
sets out a future research agenda with clear theoretical and practical
Would you summarize the significance of your paper in
The teaching of highly complex and critical skills (e.g., medical
diagnosis, air traffic control, fault management in the chemical industry)
is typically based on common sense, intuition, and anecdotic evidence. As a
result, teaching methods are often far from optimal.
For example, novice students are expected to learn from independently
solving problems, while there is convincing scientific evidence that they
learn much more from studying worked examples. Or students are required to
study equivalent information presented in different ways, while there is
strong scientific evidence that such redundant information hampers rather
than helps learning.
This paper discusses evidence-based guidelines for complex learning and,
more importantly, sets out a research agenda which should eventually help
to improve the teaching of complex, critical skills based on sound
How did you become involved in this research and were
any particular problems encountered along the way?
Since the 1980s, when I conducted my Ph.D. research on teaching computer
programming, I have been interested in complex learning and the teaching of
complex skills. In 1996, John Sweller spent his sabbatical leave at the
University of Twente in the Netherlands, where I was working by that time.
We became interested in each other's work and started our cooperation,
which resulted in a first influential article linking cognitive load theory
to instructional design (Sweller, van Merriënboer, & Paas, 1998).
I also used cognitive load theory as one of the cornerstones of my 4C/ID
model for training complex cognitive skills (van Merriënboer, 1997).
In 2003/2004, I spent my own sabbatical leave with John Sweller's research
group in Sydney. This resulted in the 2005 article in Educational
Psychology Review and also contributed to a more refined approach to
teaching complex skills called the "ten steps to complex learning" (van
Merriënboer & Kirschner, 2007).
John and I encountered many problems in bringing cognitive load theory and
models for complex learning together, because they are rooted in very
different traditions. But problems are there to be solved and we always
have a lot of fun doing so.
Where do you see your research leading in the
Currently, my research mainly focuses on complex learning in the health
professions, such as medicine, life sciences, nursing, physiotherapy etc.
Technological developments in these fields are extremely fast and acquired
knowledge quickly becomes obsolete because the state-of-the-art changes so
In such domains, teaching complex skills is a necessary but not a
sufficient condition for training professionals. They should also be
prepared to deal with continuously rapid changes in their working
environment and be able to direct their own learning. Thus, lifelong
learning is an emerging topic and my recent work on complex learning is
moving in this direction.
Do you foresee any social or political implications for
Not directly, but I hope that my work contributes to an awareness that
research on human factors and training is critical to reach pleasant and
safe working environments. Too often, innovations in professions and in
training are purely driven by the upsurge of new technologies, with the
risk that employees are left with tasks that are hard to train for and
tedious to perform.
Prof. dr. Jeroen J. G. van Merriënboer
Full professor of Learning and Instruction
Maastricht University, FHML
Dept. of Educational Development and Research
Maastricht, The Netherlands Web ¦
Sweller, J, van Merriënboer, JJG, & Paas, F, "Cognitive
architecture and instructional design," Educational Psychology
Review 10 (3), 251-96, 1998.
Van Merriënboer, JJG, Training complex cognitive skills,
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, 1997.
Van Merriënboer, JJG, & Kirschner, PA, Ten steps to
complex learning, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007.