We're being taught the wrong way, from primary school through to university level, according to a UNSW expert in education.

John Sweller, from the School of Education, is the founding father of Cognitive Load Theory, which is the subject of an international conference that begins this weekend.

"Most teaching doesn't take into account the way we think and learn, and so it fails," said Professor Sweller, who developed the theory in the 1980s.

The theory relates to 'working memory', which refers to part of the brain that provides temporary storage and manipulation of information necessary for complex cognitive tasks, such as language comprehension, learning and reasoning.

"Problem-solving places a great demand on working memory, so teachers are better off giving students solved problems so they have the learning to take home," he said. "The reason is that the cognitive processes involved in learning and solving problems are different, so we need to cater to the way the brain works.

"Everything we are aware of goes through working memory, which has a limited capacity of only three to four items of information that can be held for only three to four seconds without rehearsal," he said. "Almost all information goes after 20 seconds, unless there is rehearsal."

Professor Sweller says that teachers often give us the wrong type of information, which places too great a demand on working memory. He says the same information can be re-organised to make it much easier to understand.

Key points about Cognitive Load Theory:

Professor Sweller will be giving a presentation about the evolution of the theory at the conference.

For more on the conference, go to The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences website.