Is Cognitive Load Theory helpful?

This is a follow-up to Dan Meyer’s twitter conversation a few days ago about cognitive load theory:
My thoughts: I suspect that the difference between germane and non-germane cognitive load can be detected on an fMRI machine.  You’d first need to see what parts of the brain light up when a student is thinking about something germane.  Then just check whether the activity in question makes those (germane) areas light up more, or whether it makes those light up only a little and instead mostly consumes the region of your brain that helps you interpret a cumbersome computer interface.
This kind of stuff is not that far-fetched.  For example, here is an artificial intelligence program using nothing but fMRI input to predict what algebraic steps a student is taking.  So not only is it determining whether the student is thinking about something germane, it’s actually identifying exactly what the student is thinking…and (here’s the kicker), often BEFORE the student has actually recorded those steps on the computer screen.  Basically: mindreading.
And for some context, here is the researcher’s descriptions of what the split screens represent in the video, and here is a link to the research project.

2 thoughts on “Is Cognitive Load Theory helpful?”

  1. I didn’t get into the germane/non-germane stuff on my post (if I revisit I might come back to it) but I am familiar with quite a few fMRI studies and I think you might have an uphill climb here. First off, there’s not really a baseline — not only do we not know for sure if the “germane” distinction is a real thing, but we don’t have anything that would definitely be of one category or the other to the extent we can know when we’re seeing the difference.

    Additionally, the fMRI is less precise an instrument than you might think, It’s good for studies along the lines of “this subset of people had this part of their brain light up while this subset didn’t” but interpreting mixed results that can fire off a bunch of things at once — in some cases the same place for opposite reasons — so it can be fraught with hazard and pseudoscience. (Book recommendation while I’m at it: Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld.)

  2. Once germane load was added to the cognitive load model, it became unfalsifiable by some researchers’ reckoning. Summarized here:

    I was interested to find out that Sweller himself has eliminated germane load as an explanatory factor, via this personal communication with one of his grad students:

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