7 Tips To Reduce Cognitive Overload In eLearning

7 Tips To Reduce Cognitive Overload In eLearning
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Summary: Cognitive overload is the thorn in the side of eLearning professionals. In a perfect world, the human mind would be limitless and have the power to absorb an infinite amount of information without feeling strained. Unfortunately, this is not the case and we must ensure that our eLearning courses strike a perfect balance. Give online learners too much information and you overwhelm them; not enough, and you bore them. In this article, I'll share 7 tips to reduce your learners cognitive overload when designing eLearning experiences. 

How To Reduce Cognitive Overload In eLearning

Cognitive overload stems from the Cognitive Load Theory, which is attributed to John Sweller, an Australian educational psychologist. It suggests that the human mind can only absorb and retain a limited amount of information. If this limit is exceeded, you run the risk of overloading their mental pathways. It pertains to short-term or working memory, given that this area of our brain, according to Miller's "7 plus or minus 2 Rule" [1], can only process and store 5 to 9 pieces of information at once. When there is too much data flowing simultaneously, or we aren't given enough time to process information, it simply overflows and never makes it to the long-term memory banks. The good news is that there are ways that you can reduce cognitive overload when designing your next eLearning course.

1. Use eLearning Assessments To Determine Preexisting Knowledge

If your online learners already possess the knowledge, they won't need to learn it again. Likewise, they can use that preexisting knowledge to form a connection with new information. For example, if a learner already possesses basic customer service skills, you can build upon that base and explore a more complex process, such as completing a return or placing a special order. They have the mental schema that is necessary and you simply need to access it in order to expand their comprehension. Conduct surveys, task analysis, skills assessments, and focus groups to gauge their current knowledge base and skill proficiency.

2. Divide Complex Problems Into Smaller Steps

Complicated processes are one the main culprits when it comes to cognitive overload. This is primarily because there are so many steps, skills, and subtasks involved. As such, it's essential to break them down into more manageable parts that they can master one at a time. The same principle applies to complex problems or concepts. By dividing them into smaller, bite-sized ideas and subtopics you give online learners the opportunity to absorb and retain the information before moving to the next module.

3. Opt For A Clean, Chaos-Free eLearning Design

Many people naturally associate cognitive overload with text-based eLearning content. However, the visual aspects of your eLearning course design also play a major role. It's best to keep your layout clutter free and organized in order to direct their attention to the key takeaways. Don't be afraid to include white space, and only include images that relate to the subject matter and support your objectives. Keep busy backgrounds to a minimum and choose audio that enhances the ambiance instead of distracting your online learners. In addition, opt for colors that set the right tone and create a sense of harmony instead of bold hues that overpower the eLearning course design.

4. Pair Text With Visuals And Audio

While too much of a good thing can hinder the eLearning experience, it is advisable to pair your text with images and audio in order to boost knowledge retention. This is especially true if you want to emphasize an important concept or idea, given that the human mind assimilates information more effectively when it's in a visual format. Just make certain that your eLearning course isn't too repetitive or redundant, as online learners will have to process the information all over again instead of devoting that working memory space to new concepts.

5. Give Their Memory Banks A Break

There are times when the human mind needs a breather. This is why it's vital to offer your online learner's a break every now and then, and give their memory banks a chance to catch up. Space your learning activities so that they have time to reflect and assimilate the information and also reduce cognitive overload. You can also ease the strain on their memory by substituting lengthy text blocks with eLearning content that is easier to digest. For example, an image or presentation that sums up the subject matter can take the place of a paragraph. Their short-term memory can process this data more rapidly and requires fewer mental processes.

6. Include The Necessary Resources

Instead of asking your online learners to search the internet for the information they need, try to integrate all the necessary resources into the eLearning course itself. This prevents them from having to click away from the eLearning experience and enables them to stay fully immersed and focused. For example, you can remind them of related concepts or ideas in the margin of the page, or include hyperlinks that redirect them to articles, eLearning videos, or websites they may find useful. They can then devote all of their time to absorbing and processing the new information, rather than trying to refresh their memory about topics they've already learned.

7. Get Rid Of The Unnecessary Online Activities

It's crucial to have online activities that meet the objectives of your overall eLearning program. However, you may want to take some of the mental burdens off of your online learners by saying goodbye to activity-based goals or offering them partially solved problems. For example, online learners might simply benefit from exploring the subject matter via an open-ended scenario or eLearning game that contains all of the core skills and information.

Cognitive overload is no laughing matter, especially if you've spent a great deal of time and money on developing an eLearning course that ends up overwhelming your online learners. Use these 7 tips to make your eLearning experiences easily digestible, highly effective, and results-driven.

Would you like to learn more about minimizing cognitive overload for your online learners? Read the article Cognitive Limitations Of Adult Learners In eLearning: 6 Factors To Consider to discover the factors that play a pivotal role in shaping cognitive limits in every human's mind so that you can increase knowledge retention and prevent cognitive overwhelm.


  1. Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The psychological review, 63, 81-97.