Can prior knowledge increase task complexity?

Cases in which higher prior knowledge leads to higher intrinsic cognitive load

Crowther Centre December 9th, 2022

Cognitive Load Theory provides recommendations for how teachers can structure their instruction whilst taking into account the fact that students can only consider a limited number of things at any one time (due to limited working memory). Within the research, the difficulty of a task (the intrinsic cognitive load) is usually measured by student self-report on questions like, ‘This task was very complex’ or ‘This task contained a lot of things that I needed to think about.’ and usually students with more experience in an area will give lower task difficulty ratings than less experienced students.

This paper demonstrates this isn’t always the case. Sometimes students with higher levels of experience can rate a given task as more complex than more novice learners, and this can happen particularly when the question is trickier than it looks at first glance. This represents a new idea in the field of Cognitive Load Theory, and significantly advances the field.


Background & Aims

Cognitive load theory assumes that the higher the learner’s prior knowledge (i.e., the more expert the learner), the lower the intrinsic cognitive load (complexity) experienced for a given problem. While this is the case in many scenarios, there can be cases in which the converse is also true, resulting in more expert learners reporting higher intrinsic cognitive load than novices for the same problem. This can occur in relation to problems involving complex systems (e.g., ecological systems), for which novices’ problem representations may underestimate problem complexity and therefore report lower intrinsic load than experts. This finding is borne out in the current paper.

Samples, Methods & Results

In Study 1 with 118 participants from the Black Forest area in Germany, participants with higher levels of forestry and ecological expertise evaluated a problem relating to the restructuring of the Black Forest to adapt to climate change as more complex than did novices. In Study 2 (within-subjects design, n = 66 primary-school students), we conceptually replicated this finding in a domain more typical of cognitive load theory studies, mathematics. We found that higher prior knowledge also reduced the underestimation of the complexity of ‘tricky’, but frequently used, mathematics word problems.


Our findings suggest that cognitive load theory’s assumptions about intrinsic load and prior knowledge should be refined, as there seems to exist a sub-set of problem-solving tasks for which the traditional relationship between prior knowledge and reported ICL is reversed.

Read the article (external link to The British Journal of Educational Psychology)

Article Information

Article first published online: 27 November 2022

Authors information and affiliations

Tino Endres (Department of Psychology, Educational and Developmental Psychology, University of Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany)

Oliver Lovell (Crowther Centre, Brighton Grammar School, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia)

David Morkunas (Bentleigh West Primary School, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia)

Werner Rieß (University of Education Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany)

Alexander Renkl (Albert-Ludwig University Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany)


Endres, T., Lovell, O., Morkunas, D., Rieß, W., & Renkl, A. (2022). Can prior knowledge increase task complexity? – Cases in which higher prior knowledge leads to higher intrinsic cognitive load. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 00, 1– 23.


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