Have you heard of cognitive load theory? You may know that it has something to do with your brain and how much we can learn. So, it’s useful for instructional designers to know, at least, the basics. We’re called learning experts for a reason 🙂 Let’s find out what cognitive load is and how it may help you to improve your instructional design.
What is cognitive load?
Let’s keep it simple: cognitive load is the amount of information your brain can process in one go. John Sweller was the first to publish his research on cognitive load theory in 1988. When you’re learning, information is processed in the working (or short-term) memory where we can hold up to four chunks of information. To remember and reuse this information, it needs to move to our long-term memory where it’s stored in structures, called schemas. When you’re learning, you’re combining information that you already know with new information, forming more and more complex schemas.
For example: You’ve learnt how to play the piano. Your musical skills and knowledge including rhythm, music theory and reading sheet music are all stored in schemas in your long-term memory. These schemas will help you to learn how to play another instrument much quicker. You’ll retrieve information from those schemas and combine them with new information.
When a cognitive ‘overload’ occurs, you can no longer effectively process information and will stop learning and start making mistakes.
Types of cognitive loadResearch differentiates three types of cognitive load: intrinsic load, extraneous load and germane load. Together they form a person’s cognitive load.
- Intrinsic load is the load that’s based on the complexity of the topic and the knowledge and skills of the learner. You can’t change the complexity (hence the term ‘intrinsic’), but you can adjust your instructional design to meet the level of the learner.
- Extraneous load is all the information that’s not contributing to learning and should be kept to a minimum.
- Germane load is the load that’s required for the process of learning and you’d like to increase this load at the cost of the extraneous load. When you challenge the learners (to a certain degree), their newly gained knowledge and skills will stick for longer.