7 Facts About Cognitive Overload That Every eLearning Pro Should Know

7 Facts About Cognitive Overload That Every eLearning Pro Should Know
Summary: Are you overwhelming online learners with too many facts and figures? In this article, I’ll share 7 facts about cognitive overload that you should commit to memory.

Cognitive Overload In eLearning: 7 Facts Every eLearning Pro Should Know

There are plenty of distractions and everyday struggles that online learners must contend with. As such, you need to create learning conditions that give them ample opportunity to absorb the information instead of barraging them with so many ideas and concepts that they short-circuit their minds and put even more stress on their shoulders. Here are 7 facts that every eLearning pro should know to avoid cognitive overload and improve memory retention.

1. Visuals Trump Audio And Text

The human brain can remember information more effectively when it’s in a visual format. For example, viewing a diagram or chart can help us understand the topic better than an audio narration or bullet list. It’s also important to note that our minds process different stimuli in different ways [1]. Typically, information falls into an audio or visual category. We’re able to absorb auditory and visual data at once. However, the same cannot be said for images and text-based materials.

2. Our Brains Cannot Multitask

Many people claim to be adept multi-taskers, but the simple truth is that the brain is not equipped for it. Meaning that we’re unable to devote our full attention to multiple tasks at once. For example, we can only concentrate on one task or topic at a time. If too many materials are thrown at us, the brain must cast the net so wide that it snaps, letting all the key takeaways slip through the cracks. For this reason, it’s crucial to give online learners time to complete each eLearning activity or module before moving onto the next. Allow them to fully absorb the information and then present the next topic.

3. There Are 3 Different Types Of Memory To Consider

Most of us think of memory as a single compartment in our minds. It’s where we store all the crucial information we gather throughout the days, as well as some irrelevant data that piques our interest for one reason or another, like memorizing every word of a TV show theme song.  However, there are actually 3 different types of memory that come into play [1]:

a. Sensory

The first stage of information processing, when the mind begins to accept external stimuli and takes a mental snapshot of important data. This prevents us from being flooded by all the sights and sounds around us.

b. Working

If the information makes it past the sensory guards, it’s funneled into the working memory. Essential items are processed, while extraneous information is set aside. The working memory is only able to hold a few pieces of data at any given time.

c. Long Term

The last stage in the process is long-term memory storage. This is where it is placed into categories and retained for later use. However, there is no such thing as an everlasting memory, and the forgetting curve can gradually chip away at the data.

eLearning professionals must consider all three memory types in order to prevent cognitive overload and improve retention. For example, too much visual stimuli can overload our sensory memory, thereby blocking relevant facts and stats from reaching the working memory.

4. Decisions, Distractions, And Over-Efficiency Are Part Of The Cognitive Load Equation

According to a study conducted by P. Waddington, titled "Dying for Information" [2], there are three factors that may have a direct impact on cognitive overload. The first is the abundance of decision-making opportunities. The second is distractions or training interruptions we must contend with. The last is the constant need to manage every moment of our day in order to maximize efficiency. All of this culminates in stress that prevents our minds from assimilating information effectively.

5. Three Is The Magic Number For Information Processing

The brain can only work with three new pieces of information simultaneously before it begins to overload. We’re only human, and our memory banks have a finite capacity. However, chunking information can help to increase that magic number. For example, grouping related concepts or ideas so that they become a data set.

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6. Active Recall Stretches The Limits Of Working Memory

Certain pieces of pre-existing knowledge are so ingrained in our memory banks that they require very little mental energy [1]. These mental schemas consist of data sets that our brains can process as a single unit, instead of multiple ideas. Thus, we can stretch our working memory limits by connecting new concepts to pre-existing mental schema.

7. Mental Schemas Are The Building Blocks Of Knowledge Retention

Mental schemas deserve their own section in this article, as they are the foundation of all memory processes. Our brains use mental schema to store information efficiently. Much like a filing cabinet that allows us to organize and then recall ideas at a later time. New information that our working memory deems valid is moved to the long-term memory, where it is tucked away in the mental schema structure, along with older information that we’ve gathered over the years. This enables us to remember more for longer periods of time.

Cognitive overload happens to the best of us, even those who take pride in their "steel trap" memory. As eLearning professionals, it’s our job to create online training resources that stick, instead of overwhelming online learners with an abundance of data points and visual stimuli, hoping that something will make its way through. It’s not about giving them the information they need, but making the information easy to absorb and assimilate. Thus, they are able to apply their training in real-world situations and expand their mental schema.

Do you know how to give your online learners just the right amount of information to avoid cognitive overload? Read the article 7 Tips To Reduce Cognitive Overload In eLearning to discover 7 tips to reduce cognitive overload when designing eLearning experiences.


1. Mind Tools. n.d. “Cognitive Load Theory: Helping People Learn Effectively.” Accessed June, 2018. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/cognitive-load-theory.htm.

2. Waddington, P. 1996. Dying for information: an investigation of information overload in the UK and world-wide. London: Reuters Business Information.