Cognitive load theory for training health professionals in the workplace: A BEME review of studies among diverse professions: BEME Guide No. 53

Med Teach. 2019 Mar;41(3):256-270. doi: 10.1080/0142159X.2018.1505034. Epub 2018 Oct 17.


Aim: Cognitive load theory (CLT) is of increasing interest to health professions education researchers. CLT has intuitive applicability to workplace settings, yet how CLT should inform teaching, learning, and research in health professions workplaces is unclear.

Method: To map the existing literature, we performed a scoping review of studies involving cognitive load, mental effort and/or mental workload in professional workplace settings within and outside of the health professions. We included actual and simulated workplaces and workplace tasks.

Result: Searching eight databases, we identified 4571 citations, of which 116 met inclusion criteria. Studies were most often quantitative. Methods to measure cognitive load included psychometric, physiologic, and secondary task approaches. Few covariates of cognitive load or performance were studied. Overall cognitive load and intrinsic load were consistently negatively associated with the level of experience and performance. Studies consistently found distractions and other aspects of workplace environments as contributing to extraneous load. Studies outside the health professions documented similar findings to those within the health professions, supporting relevance of CLT to workplace learning.

Conclusion: The authors discuss implications for workplace teaching, curricular design, learning environment, and metacognition. To advance workplace learning, the authors suggest future CLT research should address higher-level questions and integrate other learning frameworks.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence*
  • Cognition
  • Health Occupations / education
  • Health Personnel / education*
  • Humans
  • Inservice Training / organization & administration*
  • Workplace / organization & administration*