Cognitive Load Theory, Resource Depletion and the Delayed Testing Effect

  • Wayne LeahyEmail author
  • John Sweller


The testing effect occurs when students, given information to learn and then practice during a test, perform better on a subsequent content post-test than students who restudy the information as a substitute for the practice test. The effect is often weaker or reversed if immediate rather than delayed post-tests are used. The weakening may be due to differential working memory resource depletion on immediate post-tests with resource recovery due to rest following a delayed post-test. In three experiments, we compared an immediate post-test with a 1-week delayed post-test. Experiment 1 required the students to construct a puzzle poem and found working memory resource depletion occurred immediately after learning compared to a delay. Experiment 2 using text-based material tapping lower element interactivity information and experiment 3, again using a puzzle poem, compared study-only with the study and test groups. A disordinal interaction was obtained in both experiments with the study-only groups superior to the study–test groups on immediate content post-tests and reverse results on delayed tests. Working memory capacity tests indicated a non-significant increase in capacity after a delay compared to immediately after learning with medium size effects, but in experiment 2, there were no working memory differences between the study-only and the study and test groups. Experiment 3 increased element interactivity and found an increased memory capacity for the study-only group compared to the study and test group with the immediate test contributing more of the difference than the delayed test. It was concluded that increased working memory depletion immediately following learning with a test contributes to the failure to obtain a testing effect using immediate tests.


Cognitive load theory Testing effect Resource depletion Element interactivity 



  1. Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2007). Testing improves long-term retention in a simulated classroom setting. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19(4-5), 514–527. Scholar
  2. Carpenter, S. K., & De Losh, E. L. (2006). Impoverished cue support enhances subsequent retention: support for the elaborative retrieval explanation of the testing effect. Memory and Cognition, 34(2), 268–276. Scholar
  3. Carpenter, S. K., & Pashler, H. (2007). Testing beyond words: using tests to enhance visuospatial map learning. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 14(3), 474–478. Scholar
  4. Carpenter, S. K., Pashler, H., Wixted, J. T., & Vul, E. (2008). The effects of tests on learning and forgetting. Memory & Cognition, 36, 438–448.
  5. Chen, O., Castro-Alonso, J. C., Paas, F., & Sweller, J. (2018). Extending cognitive load theory to incorporate working memory resource depletion: evidence from the spacing effect. Educational Psychology Review, 30(2), 483–501. Scholar
  6. Cronbach, L. J. (1951). Coefficient alpha and the internal structure of tests. Psychometrika, 16(3), 297–334.Google Scholar
  7. Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: a reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(1), 87–114. Scholar
  8. Daneman, M., & Carpenter, P. A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19(4), 450–466.Google Scholar
  9. Ericsson, K. A., & Kintsch, W. (1995). Long-term working memory. Psychological Review, 102(2), 211–245. Scholar
  10. Gates, A. I. (1917). Recitation as a factor in memorizing. Archives of Psychology, 6(40).Google Scholar
  11. Geary, D. C. (2012). Application of evolutionary psychology to academic learning. Applied Evolutionary Psychology.
  12. Geary, D. C., & Berch, D. B. (2016). Chapter 9: Evolution and children's cognitive and academic development. Evolutionary Psychology, 217–249.
  13. Hanham, J., Leahy, W., & Sweller, J. (2017). Cognitive load theory, element interactivity, and the testing and reverse testing effects. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 265–280. Scholar
  14. Healey, M. K., Hasher, L., & Danilova, E. (2011). The stability of working memory: do previous tasks influence complex span? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(4), 573–585. Scholar
  15. Johnson, C. I., & Mayer, R. E. (2009). A testing effect with multimedia learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), 621–629. Google Scholar
  16. Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). The expertise reversal effect. Educational Psychologist, 38, 23–31. Google Scholar
  17. Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86. Scholar
  18. Knapp, P., & Watkins, M. (2005). Genre, text, grammar: technologies for teaching and assessing writing. Sydney: UNSW Press doi not available.Google Scholar
  19. Kühn, A. (1914). Über Einprägung durch Lesen und durch Rezitieren [On imprinting through reading and reciting]. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 68, 396–481 doi not available.Google Scholar
  20. Leahy, W., Hanham, J., & Sweller, J. (2015). High element interactivity information during problem solving may lead to failure to obtain the testing effect. Educational Psychology Review, 27(2), 265–289. Scholar
  21. McDaniel, M. A., Anderson, J. L., Derbish, M. H., & Morrisette, N. (2007). Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19(4-5), 494–513. Scholar
  22. Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number of seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97. Scholar
  23. Paas, F., & Sweller, J. (2012). An evolutionary upgrade of cognitive load theory: using the human motor system and collaboration to support the learning of complex cognitive tasks. Educational Psychology Review, 24(1), 27–45. Scholar
  24. Pashler, H., Cepeda, N. J., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2005). When does feedback facilitate learning of words? Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31(1), 3–8. Scholar
  25. Peterson, L. R., & Peterson, M. J. (1959). Short-term memory retention of verbal items. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58(3), 193–198. Google Scholar
  26. Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006a). The power of testing memory: basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181–210. Scholar
  27. Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006b). Test-enhanced learning: taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249–255. Scholar
  28. Roediger, H. L., Putnam, A. L., & Smith, M. A. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory, 55, 1–36. Google Scholar
  29. Roediger, H. L., & Nestojko, J. F. (2015). The relative benefits of studying and testing on long-term retention. In J. G. W. Raaijmakers, A. H. Criss, R. L. Goldstone, R. M. Nosofsky, & M. Styvers (Eds.), Cognitive modeling in perception and memory: a festschrift for Richard M. Shiffrin (pp. 99–111). New York: Psychology. Scholar
  30. Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Attention control, memory updating, and emotion regulation temporarily reduce the capacity for executive control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136, 241–255. Scholar
  31. Schmeichel, B. J., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Intellectual performance and ego depletion: role of the self in logical reasoning and other information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 33–46. Scholar
  32. Sweller, J. (2009). Cognitive bases of human creativity. Educational Psychology Review, 21(1), 11–19. Scholar
  33. Sweller, J. (2010). Element interactivity and intrinsic, extraneous and germane cognitive load. Educational Psychology Review, 22, 123–138. Scholar
  34. Sweller, J. (2011). Cognitive load theory. In J. Mestre & B. Ross (Eds.), The psychology of learning and motivation: cognition in education (Vol. 55, pp. 37–76). Oxford: Academic. Scholar
  35. Sweller, J. (2012). Human cognitive architecture: why some instructional procedures work and others do not. In K. Harris, S. Graham, & T. Urdan (Eds.), APA educational psychology handbook (Vol. 1, pp. 295–325). Washington: American Psychological Association. Scholar
  36. Sweller, J. (2015). In academe, what is learned and how is it learned? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(3), 190–194. Scholar
  37. Sweller, J. (2016a). Cognitive load theory, evolutionary educational psychology, and instructional design. In D. Geary & D. Berch (Eds.), Evolutionary perspectives on child development and education (pp. 291–306). Cham: Springer. Scholar
  38. Sweller, J. (2016b). Working memory, long-term memory and instructional design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 360–367. Scholar
  39. Sweller, J., & Sweller, S. (2006). Natural information processing systems. Evolutionary Psychology, 4(1), 434–458. Scholar
  40. Sweller, J., Kirschner, P., & Clark, R. E. (2007). Why minimally guided teaching techniques do not work: a reply to commentaries. Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 115–121. Scholar
  41. Sweller, J., Ayres, P., & Kalyuga, S. (2011). Cognitive load theory. New York: Springer. Google Scholar
  42. Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 265–283. Scholar
  43. Van Gog, T., & Kester, L. (2012). A test of the testing effect: acquiring problem-solving skills from worked examples. Cognitive Science, 36(8), 1532–1541. Scholar
  44. Van Gog, T., Kester, L., & Paas, F. (2011). Effects of worked examples, example-problem, and problem-example pairs on novices’ learning. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36(3), 212–218. Scholar
  45. Van Gog, T., Kester, L., Dirkx, K., Hoogerheide, V., Boerboom, J., & Verkoeijen, P. P. J. L. (2015). Testing after worked example study does not enhance delayed problem-solving performance compared to restudy. Educational Psychology Review, 27(2), 265–289. Scholar
  46. Van Gog, T., & Sweller, J. (2015). Not new, but nearly forgotten: the testing effect decreases or even disappears as the complexity of learning materials increases. Educational Psychology Review, 27(2), 247–264. Scholar
  47. Wheeler, M. A., Ewers, M., & Buonanno, J. F. (2003). Different rates of forgetting following study versus test trials. Memory, 11(6), 571–580. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Educational StudiesMacquarie UniversitySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.University of New South WalesKensingtonAustralia

Personalised recommendations