My experience with ‘goal-free’ – a Cognitive Load Theory strategy

@Olivercaviglioli ‘s wonderful document on Cognitive Load Theory here introduced me to the “Goal-Free Effect” – a Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) strategy that I was unfamiliar with. Goal-Free was the first CLT strategy – that’s what comes of learning your theories from blogs.

The strategy reduces cognitive load by removing the actual question from the problem, leaving just infromation, often in the form of a diagram.

This is how I’ve been using it to help my pupils prepare for the maths reasoning papers in the SATs.

Goal-Free KS2 Maths Reasoning Question

I prepare 4 goal-free images like the one above – I display one on the whiteboard with an embedded 30 second countdown timer. I also give each pupil an A4 copy. Each pupil has 30 seconds to annotate their sheet with as much information as possible (in this example, they came up with shape names (rhombus, trapesium, equilateral triangle etc); perimeter; area and lines of symmetry). They then share with a partner for 30 seconds. Then I collect on the scree version. We repeat this for the four goal-free questions.

This stage lasts about 10 – 15 minutes.

Finally, I give them the whole questions and just 4 minutes to comlete all of them. They tend to answer them very well.

The goal-free element of this task is getting pupils to explore the information without the prejudice of a question. On top of this, we use annotation to reduce cognitive load and then promote learning further with metacognition – discussing how they eventually solved the problem.

On Wednesday and Thursday they completed their Maths Reasoning Papers. I was very pleased to see my pupils annotating the questions as they went – their tests looked like the annotated goal-free questions we’d practiced. This did not guarentee correct answers, but it helped.

I wish that I had started this strategy sooner – 2 weeks before the exams is really too late – but it seems to have been a productive use of time. Now we wait for the results….


  1. Would you do this say with a worded problem just without the question that they are trying to answer? I really like what you have done with that shape question, I can see how this works with visual questions just wondered about other types of questions and how you did it. I think it also links really well to retrieval practice.


    1. Hi Carl – sorry I missed your comment. Yes, I have tried it with word questions too – where it ‘sets the scene’ – also seemed to work very well. B


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