Cognitive Load Theory’s Changing Take on Motivation

In 2012, John Sweller (of Cognitive Load Theory fame) sat for an interview about his work. The conversation turned to motivation, and Sweller made it very clear that motivation was beyond the scope of CLT.

“One of the issues I faced with Cognitive Load Theory is that there are at least some people out there who would like to make Cognitive Load Theory a theory of everything. It isn’t. […] It has nothing to say about important motivational factors…It’s not part of CLT.”

Later in the interview he expands on this point.

“Cognitive Load Theory works on the assumption that the students are fully engaged, fully motivated, that their attention is being directed. Cognitive Load Theory has nothing to say about a student who is staring out the window and not listening.”

When I started researching Sweller’s work, I was fascinated by these later interviews, because I saw them as conflicting with his earlier publications. I thought this represented an important shift in his thinking, one that connects to his dismissal of “germane load” from his theory.

That’s what I thought when I wrote the essay. But does the claim hold up?

The first time Sweller writes about motivation is in Sweller & Cooper, 1985.


I was talking to Greg Ashman about this passage, and Greg made a great point. He argued that this early passage is not necessarily in conflict with Sweller’s later interviews. Why not? CLT may consider motivational factors, but it’s not what CLT is about. After all, they didn’t even measure motivation as part of this experiment. True, you need to motivate students to participate in the study, but that’s hardly the same thing as studying motivation!

In Sweller, van Merrienboer and Paas 1998, motivation comes up again (as it non infrequently does in van Merrienboer’s work).


Now, again, it’s true that this mentions motivation. And, at first, I thought that this conflicted Sweller’s later take. Sweller says in that interview that CLT assumes that students are fully motivated. If students are already fully motivated, then why talk about possible negative effects of motivation?

But this still might not conflict with Sweller’s later statements. After all, this is merely speculating on a possible way worked examples might impact motivation negatively. This does not mean that CLT is about motivation or that its study is part of CLT work.

The best support for the story I told in the essay, I think, comes from van Merrienboer & Sweller 2004 . Motivation makes it into the abstract:


“Complex learning is a lengthy process requiring learners’ motivational states and levels of expertise development into account.” Doesn’t that mean that we’re no longer just assuming high levels of motivation in CLT research? And this attention to motivation is called “a recent development in CLT.” So, surely, motivation is part of CLT’s research. No?

I think the clearest statement of motivation’s place in CLT comes in the “discussion” section of this piece:


“Four major developments in current CLT research were discussed…research to take learners’ motivation and their development of expertise during length courses or training programs into account.

This is the evidence I was confronting, and I’m sure there is more than one way to read it. My read, however, is that this is a claim that CLT research included motivational factors, and that this conflicts with Sweller’s later statements. After all, would Sweller say in 2012 that learner’s changing expertise isn’t a part of CLT research? Certainly, he wouldn’t, as the expertise-reversal effect is still an important part of CLT’s work. Motivation might have continued to be part of CLT, but Sweller changed his mind. That’s my read.

My claim was never that motivation was a core concern of CLT. But I do think that Sweller’s thinking about motivation and CLT shifted in a way that illuminates his development. It’s a shift that I think tells us something about how a major task of scientists of learning is to manage complexity, to decide what to study and what to ignore. (And how it is, to an extent, a choice.) And I do think that Sweller’s thinking about motivation helps illuminate the much more significant change in his thinking about germane load.

As always, I might have gotten this wrong. But this is why I think that there’s something interesting about motivation in CLT.


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