Every person who has led a training knows the look that we’ve grown to fear—eyes glazed over, eyebrows furrowed, and a slight tinge of puzzlement on a participant’s face. They are lost. The learning material just isn’t resonating with them. Why is it that some training is so impactful and some is such a bust? Cognitive load theory could help explain this disconnect and provide insight about how to design learning opportunities that don’t leave our participants bewildered.
What is cognitive load theory?
Cognitive load theory was introduced in 1988 by John Sweller to explain how the amount of information a person is trying to process at any given time can impact their ability to commit the information to long-term memory. Sweller emphasizes that the cognitive limit—the amount of information a person can process in working memory at any given time—is very limited, so we need to be mindful of this constraint when we create training.
Memory experts don’t agree on how few pieces of information our working memory can hold, but most believe the answer is between four and seven. On the other hand, our long-term memory has a capacity that is almost limitless. Once we store information in our long-term memory, we can access it again and again with ease. The goal in learning design, therefore, should be to help participants commit information to long-term memory by minimizing the cognitive load they experience during learning.
Using the concepts of cognitive load theory in eLearning and other types of training can help us design effective learning experiences that don’t overload learners’ brains.
Types of load that impact learning
There are three types of load that impact how information is committed to long-term memory.
Intrinsic load: Refers to how complex the material is. The more complex a subject is, the more “space” it will take up in cognitive load. An annual refresher course will likely have a low intrinsic load because much of the information should already be stored in our long-term memory.
Extraneous load: Refers to information that falls outside the perimeter of the learning objective. Extra information that is not relevant to a specific task can take its toll on our mental load and make it harder to commit new information to memory. Background information, scenarios, and sample problems should not introduce new information that isn’t pertinent to the learning task at hand.
Germane load: Refers to the good type of information we want to include in our training—the type that will help a learner remember new information. A good example is an acronym that will help them recall the steps of a process. Instructional design strategies should increase this type of load to best support learners.
How to create training that maximizes cognitive load
Applying these concepts isn’t as simple as including germane load and excluding extraneous load. How information is presented matters as much as what information is presented. Here are some tips on ways you can create training that allows learners to commit new information to their long-term memory.
Give worked examples
Research shows that novice learners who are given worked examples of problems perform better when tested on their ability to solve similar problems. Make sure to use fully worked examples of problems, situations, or scenarios in your training to help learners maximize their information retrieval.
If you have ever wondered why a phone number is broken up with () or - then you are familiar with chunking. Chunking refers to breaking down details by grouping into smaller pieces of information that are easier to recall.
- A shopping list grouped by sections of the grocery store
- Learning a new sport like basketball by breaking it down into smaller skills like dribbling, passing, and shooting
In instructional design, three key components of chunking include:
- Grouping information
- Recognizing patterns
- Organizing information into categories
Don’t split attention
Split attention effect occurs when instructional materials require a learner to split their attention between multiple sources of information. This can occur in both visual and auditory materials but is most common in diagrams. Whenever possible, integrate text into a diagram rather than separating it into a table or key. For example, in the images below, the diagram that does not have the labels integrated into the pictures requires us to split our attention between the color key and the image itself.
Present material in a variety of ways
We have two channels within our working memory, an auditory channel and a visual channel. Some research suggests that our working memory storage for each type of channel is separate, which means we can increase the likelihood of committing something to long-term memory by presenting it in an auditory and visual way. For example, when presenting a training with graphics (visual channel), it might be better to include narration (audio channel) than large amounts of written text (visual channel).
Bonus: presenting material in different ways can also help you be inclusive of people with different learning styles.
Real world implications of TMI
If you are thinking to yourself that cognitive load is a fancy way to describe TMI (too much information) you aren’t mistaken. It turns out our brains really can get to a point of hearing TMI, and this effect isn’t just limited to formalized learning. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to give everyone a case of TMI as our brains were overloaded with new information.
The impact of this overload could be felt in multiple areas of our lives, including what TV shows we watched. During the beginning of the pandemic many people found themselves re-watching favorite shows rather than watching new series. Could this have been the result of the extra cognitive load we were all carrying around? With information coming at us from every direction, favorite TV shows provide comfort without causing our brains to do very much work. After all, the main storylines were already saved in our long-term memory!
Let us help you create training that sticks
Cognitive load theory can seem complicated at first. Our training experts are here to help. At EdgePoint Learning, we collaborate with you to create eLearning that gets the job done efficiently—without overloading your learners’ brains. Let us know how we can help you!