Skip to main content

Extending Cognitive Load Theory to Incorporate Working Memory Resource Depletion: Evidence from the Spacing Effect


Depletion of limited working memory resources may occur following extensive mental effort resulting in decreased performance compared to conditions requiring less extensive mental effort. This “depletion effect” can be incorporated into cognitive load theory that is concerned with using the properties of human cognitive architecture, especially working memory, when designing instruction. Two experiments were carried out on the spacing effect that occurs when learning that is spaced by temporal gaps between learning episodes is superior to identical, massed learning with no gaps between learning episodes. Using primary school students learning mathematics, it was found that students obtained lower scores on a working memory capacity test (Experiments 1 and 2) and higher ratings of cognitive load (Experiment 2) after massed than after spaced practice. The reduction in working memory capacity may be attributed to working memory resource depletion following the relatively prolonged mental effort associated with massed compared to spaced practice. An expansion of cognitive load theory to incorporate working memory resource depletion along with instructional design implications, including the spacing effect, is discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5


Download references


We would like to thank the students, teachers, and principal of the Chengdu Normal School primary school (Vanke Campus), Chengdu, China for their support.

Funding Information

The second author acknowledges partial funding from CONICYT PAI, national funding research program for returning researchers from abroad, 2014, No 82140021; and PIA–CONICYT Basal Funds for Centers of Excellence, Project FB0003.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Ouhao Chen or John Sweller.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Chen, O., Castro-Alonso, J.C., Paas, F. et al. Extending Cognitive Load Theory to Incorporate Working Memory Resource Depletion: Evidence from the Spacing Effect. Educ Psychol Rev 30, 483–501 (2018).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Cognitive load theory
  • Human cognitive architecture
  • Working memory resource depletion
  • Spacing effect