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Preventing Cognitive Overload in eLearning

Before you click away confused at the title, cognitive load simply describes how much brainpower is needed in order to process the information in the eLearning course. Although this is a process that occurs within the brain, there are things that designers and course producers can do to help prevent overloading. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at what makes up this function;

  1.  Germane Cognitive Load – This is the presentation of the material as well as the activities within. Although course designers cannot know the level of expertise for each learner, they do have a good amount of control over this section. 
  2. Intrinsic Cognitive Load – Unfortunately, the designer has no control here because it describes how complex the learning process is for an individual task. This being said, some designs may have an influence on the complexity of tasks.
  3. Extraneous Cognitive Load – Ultimately, this is very similar to germane cognitive load but the difference is that the tasks are not related to the initial learning goals and this comes from design alone.

Reducing Cognitive Load – Below, we have listed seven of the most popular approaches course designers take to reduce cognitive load; 

  • Curation – Firstly, some producers will curate content rather than supplying everything in one single eLearning course. Therefore, absolute beginners will get an understanding of the essentials. If they want to dig a little deeper, they will be provided with links, videos, and extra learning opportunities to do so.
  • Chunking – With some topics, there will be sections that require increased concentration because of the complexity and multistep processes. If this is the case, some find it beneficial to separate each of these steps into their own section. As soon as the learner has seen the different sections that make up one process, they can be brought together to seal the understanding.
  • Just in Time – Whilst some learners prefer to read and read for hours on end to understand a topic, others prefer short snippets of information and fact sheets and this point focuses on the latter. Whenever they need the information, these simple fact sheets can be reviewed and this means that they don’t have to memorize as much information right from the start.
  • Multimodal – Thanks to the advancements in technology, we now know just how complex the human mind can be and this is seen when processing information; the way in which we digest audio, for example, is very different to visual learning. Therefore, courses should utilize text, video, imagery, diagrams, color, and various other available resources.
  • Relevance – If you’re going to include activities in your course, make sure they are relevant otherwise learners lose motivation and the whole exercise becomes pointless. For example, an activity could put the learned theoretical skills to use and this will ensure the right skills have been developed.
  • Simplicity – Finally, it is extremely easy to get caught up adding various features that just aren’t necessary. If your course has too much going on, cognitive overload will occur so stick to the bare minimum and only add what you and the learners will need. After a while, special effects aren’t engaging but distracting so use them carefully.

Overall, we cannot understate the importance of this last tip so use simple English and keep the instructions clear. If something doesn’t make sense, remove it and keep everything relevant. When a learner chooses a course, they do so for the information and because it looks simple not because it looks complex and difficult to follow. If you follow these tips, you should be well on your way to preventing cognitive overload!