A cognitive-load approach to collaborative learning: United brains for complex tasks

Femke Kirschner*, Fred Paas, Paul A. Kirschner

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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    This article presents a review of research comparing the effectiveness of individual learning environments with collaborative learning environments. In reviewing the literature, it was determined that there is no clear and unequivocal picture of how, when and why the effectiveness of these two approaches to learning differ, a result which may be due to differing complexities of the learning tasks used in the research and the concomitant load imposed on the learner’s cognitive system. Based upon cognitive load theory, it is argued that learning by an individual becomes less effective and efficient than learning by a group of individuals as task complexity increases. Dividing the processing of information across individuals is useful when the cognitive load is high because it allows information to be divided across a larger reservoir of cognitive capacity. Although such division requires that information be recombined and that processing be coordinated, under high load conditions these costs are minimal compared to the gain achieved by this division of labor. In contrast, under low load conditions, an individual can adequately carry out the required processing activities, and the costs of recombination and coordination are relatively more substantial. Implications of these ideas for research and practice of collaborative learning are discussed.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)31-42
    JournalEducational Psychology Review
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2009


    • collaborative learning environments
    • individual learning environments
    • cognitive load theory
    • complex tasks


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