Cognitive Overload and e-Learning

3 minutes

Are you a multitasker? You could be subjecting yourself to cognitive overload. While some of us hold ‘being busy’ as a badge of honor, the reality is that over-taxing your memory capacity results in a loss of productivity and even emotional control.


What is Cognitive Overload?

Essentially, we have two types of memory capacity: working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is relatively limited and can quite easily become overloaded. Long-term memory has a far greater capacity but requires that information come to it through the working memory. If the latter is taxed beyond its abilities, the information will not transfer through correctly and therefore won’t be available to be retrieved at some point in the future.

Cognitive Overload in a Learning Environment

Cognitive overload in a learning environment has the same effect on memory and overall learning capacity, much as multitasking does on the brain more generally.

At a basic level, “…cognitive overload is a situation where the teacher gives too much information or too many tasks to learners simultaneously, resulting in the learner being unable to process this information.” Source

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) postulates that there are three types of load that exist in virtually all learning environments and that affect a person’s use of their working memory and ultimately, of their recall ability from long-term memory:

  1. Intrinsic – this refers to the complexity of the material being presented and its effect on cognitive load.
  2. Extraneous – this refers to cognitive load that add nothing to the learning experience, such as animations or graphics that are not immediately relevant.
  3. Germane – these are the things that assist the student in using their working memory effectively for learning.

According to CLT, the sum of these three types of load must be less than what the working memory can handle for learning to be truly effective.

While it is also true that e-Learning is a singularly effective way to teach and avoid cognitive overload in part because the learning is, at least to some extent, self-paced, there are specific ways in which an instructional designer can help minimize cognitive overload.

Three Ways to Structure e-Learning Courses to Avoid Cognitive Overload

  1. Keep it simple – taking out all content from the course that isn’t immediately relevant to the topic at hand will help e-Learners to process and retain the information and pass it on to long-term memory.
  2. Chunk the information – complex topics should be broken down into ‘bite-size’ pieces, to enable the e-Learner to take it in fully. Dividing information in this way enables a student to fully understand and process one part before moving on, thus improving the transfer to long-term memory.
  3. Use different techniques to present the information – some students are visual, others are verbal. By using different presentation styles, the designer allows the student to process the information in different ways, without over-taxing their working memory.

Are there any other techniques that help you overcome cognitive overload? Don’t keep this secret to yourself: share your experience in the comments below.

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