Cognitive load theory was introduced in the 1980s as an instructional design theory based on several uncontroversial aspects of human cognitive architecture. Our knowledge of many of the characteristics of working memory, long-term memory and the relations between them had been well-established for many decades prior to the introduction of the theory. Curiously, this knowledge had had a limited impact on the field of instructional design with most instructional design recommendations proceeding as though working memory and long-term memory did not exist. In contrast, cognitive load theory emphasised that all novel information first is processed by a capacity and duration limited working memory and then stored in an unlimited long-term memory for later use. Once information is stored in long-term memory, the capacity and duration limits of working memory disappear transforming our ability to function. By the late 1990s, sufficient data had been collected using the theory to warrant an extended analysis resulting in the publication of Sweller et al. (Educational Psychology Review, 10, 251–296, 1998). Extensive further theoretical and empirical work have been carried out since that time and this paper is an attempt to summarise the last 20 years of cognitive load theory and to sketch directions for future research.