How cognitive load theory supports instructional design

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 load

Research 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.
I often use the metaphor of a bucket with water to explain the types of cognitive load. A bucket can only contain so much water (load) before it overflows. The intrinsic load sits at the bottom of the bucket. To make best use of the rest of the space, you want to limit the extraneous load and use most of the remaining volume for the germane load.

Why you need to know about cognitive load

When you pay attention to the limitations of the working memory and reduce the cognitive load for learners, you’ll achieve better results and improve their learning experience. A cognitive overload means that learners’ brain will ‘turn off’. They’ll start making mistakes, not absorb the presented information and therefore not create new or reactivate existing schemas. You should aim to use the learners’ cognitive load for learning activities and adjust your instructions to the learner’s level, instead of overwhelming them with unnecessary information or clunky navigation and processes that don’t support the learning. Cognitive load theory is also useful in discussions with subject matter experts. A short explanation of cognitive (over)load helps to change their mind when they’re trying to add more, in my opinion redundant, content to a course.

What you can do to use cognitive load effectively

  • Ensure you have a good understanding of the learners’ level of expertise. You can decrease the cognitive load by breaking a complex topic into smaller parts. Or you build on the knowledge that the learners already have.
  • Avoid redundant information and only include the information that learners need to know. Processing the redundant information takes (extraneous) cognitive load.
  • Chunk your content and encourage learners only to continue to the next chunk when they’re confident they’ve learnt enough of the previous chunk.
  • Avoid situations in which learners need to use different sources to understand the material, e.g. read an explanation and look at a process diagram at the same time. Instead, show the diagram with a voice-over or turn it into an animation.
  • Use interleaving – the technique of alternating between related topics or concepts – to challenge learners and make learning stick better.
  • Avoid narration of your elearning slides. It means that learners are processing the same information twice. Narration for accessibility reasons can be activated through a button.
  • Provide learners with worked examples to help them with problem-solving. Guided problem-solving uses less cognitive load and has been proven to be more effective than ‘throwing learners in the deep end’.
  • Encourage learners to reflect on their learning. It will help them to make connections to their existing knowledge.
  • Summary

    You can create better learning solutions with basic knowledge of cognitive load theory. If you understand the types of cognitive load, you can limit any extraneous load. The next step is to increase the germane load by challenging learners and make learning ‘stickier’, resulting in better outcomes and learning experience. And that’s what we’re aiming for!
    Sweller, Van Merrienboer & Paas 1998, Cognitive architecture and instructional design in Educational Psychology Review, vol. 10, no. 3. Download it from ResearchGate.
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